Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"A Blight and a Sin": Segregation, The Kennedy Assassination And The Wreckage of Whiteness, Part I

In 2006, the University of Texas Press published "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001." In honor of the fifth anniversary of that publication, I am serializing 'White Metropolis" at this blog site. Here, I discuss the unusual career of Dallas Congressman Bruce Alger and the fitful moves Dallas took towards desegregation in the early 1960s.

By 1960, Dallas blacks and whites lived on the same planet, but in different worlds. The black civil rights leadership looked to tomorrow, believing that "The South Is Changed And Can Never Turn Back," as a March 14, 1959 banner headline in the Dallas Express proclaimed. If Dallas blacks looked forward to a more equitable future, elites mourned a past they believed had blossomed under the unchallenged rule of wealthy Southern whites.

Even as waves of non-Southern immigrants altered the region's politics and culture, Dallas’ leadership continued to cloak the city in Confederate gray. A list of Dallas elementary schools in the mid-twentieth century read like a rebel army muster roll. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, generals Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and John B. Hood, Confederate Postmaster and local politico John H. Reagan, General (and later Dallas Mayor) William Cabell and local banker and Confederate officer William Henry Gaston all had campuses named in their honor. Thomas Jefferson High School, named after the slaveholding president, called its teams the Rebels and adopted the Confederate battle flag as its symbol.

Southerness marked the local architecture as never before. One might have expected North Central Texas voices to drip honey, but by the 1960s Dallas increasingly spoke with a different accent. The post-World War II flood of immigrants to Texas from outside Dixie began as a trickle. In 1950, a little less than 11.3 percent of Texas residents had been born outside the South. By 1960, that number increased to almost 11.7 percent.

This slow prelude to a demographic revolution dramatically accelerated in the last third of the twentieth century. The number of native-born Texans living in the state dropped from 71 percent in 1970, to 65 percent in 1994. Unlike the past, when most newcomers to Texas came from the South, most of the immigrants in the later third of the twentieth century previously lived in the Midwest. A human tidal wave altered not just the Texas landscape, but also the entire region.

"[T]he South has been Americanized," historian John Boles noted of the post-war immigration boom that turned Dixie into part of the so-called Sunbelt, a neo-region that stretched amoebae-like from the Carolina coast westward to California. The rise of the Sunbelt signified the increasing political and economic power of the South and West and the precipitous decline of a unionized North. Dallas became a port of entry for Rustbelt refugees who brought a more industrial, more high-tech economy and created a less provincial culture.

"In 1861 everyone considered Texas a part of the South; a century later its regional identification was debatable . . .," Boles noted. In the post-war years, Texans began electing Republicans to the governor’s office and the Senate, legalized liquor-by-the-drink and repealed the state’s blue laws, which outlawed sale of certain retail items on Sunday. These changes marked the crumbling of traditional Southern elite hegemony. "We’re becoming more of national state than a Southern state," one Texan observed upon the blue laws’ demise.

Dallas' elites had mythologized the Southern past beyond recognition. They no longer remembered the 1860 fire, the intra-white conflict during Reconstruction, or the conflicts between capitalists and Populists, Socialists and unionists at the turn of the century. The political turmoil wracking Dallas in the 1960s and 1970s seemed a new thing, shaking elite confidence. This chapter argues that Dallas elites in the 1960s and 1970s were paralyzed by their view of the past and unable, for two decades, to fully accommodate new political realities.

Elites feared mounting an Alamo-like defense of Jim Crow, worrying that this would dry up the flow of Yankee investment dollars fueling Dallas' economic expansion. Yet they also dreaded a rebellion of lower-class whites should they appear to accommodate the federal government's integrationist demands. Divided, elites passively allowed Dallas desegregation, opening city hall, the county courthouse and the local congressional delegation to people of color. Elites, however, retained control by default as blacks and Mexican Americans battled with increasing ferocity.

Old and new racial ideologies existed side-by-side. Some elites still believed that the line between black and white represented the division between the civilized and uncivilized. One Dallas Morning News editorial warned of the dire consequences that the civil rights movement posed for Dallas. "When one million Negroes in Harlem, Chicago and Philadelphia can have more influence in elections — and in Washington's crucial decisions — than all the states from Texas to the Carolinas, then the South has a tremendous danger to face," the editorial cautioned.

When blacks assumed power, the newspaper insisted, civilization fell to jungle rule. Civil war and ethnic cleansing in newly decolonized Africa became a recurring motif of the Dallas Morning News' overseas coverage. Jungle stereotypes of blacks with large lips and bones through their noses abounded in advertising and editorial cartoons. One Bill McClanahan cartoon, "Somebody's Going To Get It," depicted factions in the Congo civil war of the early 1960s as cannibals sharpening knives over boiling pots as they hungrily eyed each other.

"It is quite true that the people of the Congo are primitive children of the jungle and that many of them are the children or grandchildren of practicing cannibals," wrote columnist Lynn Landrum in 1961. "That has a bearing, of course, on whether we ought to insist that they adopt our form of representative government and conduct their affairs of state as we do at Austin or at Washington." As such, neither Landrum nor his paper could endorse any political party that embraced black political rights. This estranged Dallas elites from a Democratic Party that since the 1930s, they charged, provided "the impetus for racial equality, integration and social mixing . . ."

Regardless of the Morning News' hostility towards civil rights, however, some Dallas whites saw America as locked in a bitter ideological war with the Soviet Union for hearts and minds in Africa and Asia. Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and other liberal Democratic Presidents in the mid-twentieth century worried about the impact of Southern racism on America's image during the Cold War. Many Americans suspected the stability of newly independent states in Africa and Asia and felt that they had to convince the gullible, easily manipulated people of the developing world that the United States offered the best model for new nations.

With the Soviet Union presenting itself as not just anti-imperialist but anti-racist, according to historian Joel Williamson, the United States found itself in a difficult position. "The United States, offering itself as both the modern exemplar and the champion of democracy, was faced with the problem of wooing the non-white people of the Third World into the anti-Communist camp while racism ran riot at home," Williamson wrote.

Many Southerners shared this fear that the cumulative injustices of American society might provide ammunition for a communist enemy spreading subversive doctrines at home and in the decolonized world. Douglas McKibben, who lived in an apartment in a lower middle class white Dallas neighborhood with a median income of $4,574, felt a combination of moral outrage and Cold War fear over the city's racial politics. "As a grammar and high school student in a segregated community in West Texas, I never questioned whether or not Negroes had any rights. Likely I thought of them not at all," he admitted in a 1959 letter to the Dallas Morning News. "As a college student in a large integrated community, I never questioned the rights of Negroes, Orientals and others to attend the same school . . . The actions of the Arkansas and Virginia Governors [to block school integration] are indefensible. [Soviet leader] Nikita [Khrushchev] himself could not have caused greater racial discord and disrespect for our country."

Mrs. J. Roland Smith, the wife of a draftsman living in an upper middle class white neighborhood with a median income of $8,348, echoed McKibben's worries. Smith could not stomach the violent hostility to black student James Meredith's enrollment at the University of Mississippi. "The shooting into the Meredith home in Mississippi was a disgrace to America," she said. " . . . When an American can't go to the college he chooses, he might wonder what we are fighting for."

In May 1958, more than 300 white Dallas-area ministers joined 115 black ministers in issuing a statement condemning segregation as "a blight and sin." "We are requesting only simple justice . . ." the joint statement read. "We ask for nothing that a recognition of the dignity of man does not prescribe." Unlike Anglo Dallasites of an earlier generation,

Robert P. Douglass, pastor of the Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church in Dallas, saw neither racism nor racial separation as part of the natural order. In a February 1961 sermon, Douglass declared, "The Christian gospel gave people the idea that no man is second class in the sight of God. . . . We adults, both white and Negro, are too deeply ingrained with Jim Crow. But we must let the change come, particularly in the schools. Young people who do not come into the world with our prejudices have a chance to solve these problems if we adults don't force our prejudices upon them."

Texas experienced no campaign of "massive resistance," with explosive riots accompanying school integration as happened in nearby New Orleans or in the neighboring state of Arkansas. Growing Northern immigration to the state, increasing sophistication in the Texas economy, and stronger ties between cities like Dallas and Houston to the national and global economies all diluted loyalty to de jure segregation as a Southern way of life. As Houston historian William Henry Kellar points out, many school districts in North and West Texas that had a small number of black students implemented Brown almost immediately. El Paso approved a desegregation plan by a 6-1 majority within months of the 1954 Supreme Court decision even as San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Eagle Mountain quickly announced plans to implement Brown.

Texas school districts with the largest number of African American students, such as Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and Galveston, dragged their feet in complying with the court, but such battles were usually coolly legalistic, not marked by the glandular outbursts accompanying desegregation in the Deep South. Fewer Texas whites defended Jim Crow as passionately as their peers in Mississippi, but few openly embraced desegregation either. Doing so, many Texas liberals worried, would invite harassment, accusations of communism or worse. "Most Southern whites who opposed racial discrimination remained fearfully silent," William Kellar writes. Too many churches and universities failed to offer moral leadership on the civil rights issue, Kellar argues, and this dampened public acceptance of desegregation.

The most courageous white support for desegregation in Texas often came from younger voters, with the Dallas County Young Democrats testing the limits of white supremacy. State Attorney General John Ben Shepperd tried to abolish the Texas chapter of the NAACP by arguing that the group met the legal definition of "doing business" in Texas and therefore had to remit previously unpaid franchise taxes as well as make its membership list public. Such a move would have exposed supporters to harassment and potential violence. The state and the NAACP settled out of court, with Texas agreeing not to challenge the organization's non-profit status and the NAACP agreeing to pay the state franchise tax.

The NAACP's decision to settle prompted resentment among black supporters across the state. NAACP membership declined from 16,866 in 1956 to 7,785 at the end of 1957. In this hyper-charged atmosphere, Doyle King, president of the Dallas County Young Democratic Club, proclaimed in 1956 his opposition to the state's harassment of the NAACP. King's remarks outraged Lynn Landrum of the Morning News who predicted a backlash against the Democratic Party in Dallas County during Dwight Eisenhower's re-election campaign for the presidency.

Racial liberals gained strength in the Democratic Party as segregationists bolted for the city's growing Republican movement. In 1954, Dallas County allocated its only Congressional seat to right-wing Republican Bruce Alger, who proved that the GOP could learn from Southern Democrats how to play racial politics. Alger ran his debut congressional campaign as a political outsider, opposing the establishment-backed Wallace Savage, a former mayor. Alger shocked the city, carrying nearly 53 percent of the vote to become the first-ever Republican congressman from Dallas County and the only Republican member of the Texas delegation to the House of Representatives.

Savage alienated several key constituencies, fighting off a challenge from liberal Leslie Hacker in the Democratic party primary by venomously assailing New Deal and pro-Truman Fair Deal Democrats and the NAACP. Roy Evans, president of the United Auto Workers local in Dallas, supported Alger because working for a two-party system was preferable to liberals to being "co-opted constantly by the ruling conservative Democrats." The Republican carried a majority in black precincts, where voters were alienated by Savage's attacks on the Civil Rights Movement.

To whatever degree race was in the background in his first campaign, in later years Alger fought as ardently as any Dixiecrat to defend Jim Crow. Alger's challenger during his first re-election campaign in 1956, Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade, stooped to invoking the Civil War to attack the first-term Republican. "Republicans are running on a platform of peace," Wade said in a September debate. "They forget they were born of the most devastating war in our history — the Civil War." Wade attacked Alger for being insufficiently committed to segregation. "He (Alger) said anyone who thought the Supreme Court segregation ruling was unconstitutional was 'whistling Dixie,'" Wade continued. "Dixie is a grand old tune — a tune both my grandfathers marched to in war. And you'll find Henry Wade 'whistling Dixie' whenever the Supreme Court or anyone else in Washington tried to take away State's rights or local self government."

Wade’s attacks forced Alger to establish his segregationist credentials. Alger told an audience of Young Republicans at the Baker Hotel in Dallas that he had been informed by "responsible Negro leaders" that they aspired to “equality of education rather than enforced association” in spite of the pretensions of the NAACP. Wade represented the most serious challenge to Alger's tenure until his ultimate defeat in 1964, but the Republican still prevailed.

Stung by Wade’s attacks, Alger pursued increasingly white supremacist themes. Alger, however, represented a subtle but significant shift in the national dialogue on race. His Southern peers in the Congress, such as Democratic Representative John Bell Williams of Mississippi, unequivocally declared in a July 5, 1956 speech on the House floor that "[m]entally, the Negro is inferior to the white . . . the arrest and even deterioration in mental development is no doubt very largely due to the fact that after puberty sexual matters take first place in the Negroes’ life and thoughts."

Mindful of his more sophisticated urban audience, Alger refashioned such racist rhetoric with great nuance. He marshaled FBI crime statistics, for instance, to imply that there was a black propensity to commit crimes against whites. But rather than dwell on the mythological black propensity for violence and rape, Alger disguised his racist appeals as opposition to a tyrannical federal government's growing power.

Alger avoided directly proclaiming black inferiority, scrupulously emphasizing that he was against forced integration, implying that he would support desegregation of the voluntary sort. " . . . I will observe that I do not believe the Negroes want to go to white schools," he scribbled in notes for a 1950s speech titled Segregation. " . . . [U]nder no circumstances should any child be compelled to be taught by a teacher of the opposite race, against his will. Nor should [there be forced] integration of [the] diseased with the healthy, nor morons with normals, nor criminals with [the] virtuous, nor filthy with clean children ever be permitted under any circumstances."

Alger cloaked his defense of segregation as a defense of black rights, at the same time sending a less explicit pitch than John Bell Williams to racists by implying "Negroes" belonged to the same category of social defectives as morons, criminals, the diseased and the filthy. Disguising racism as a dispassionate plea for less government, Alger presaged much of the "Southern Strategy" approach taken by the GOP beginning in the late 1960s, long after Alger’s departure from Congress.

Alger's approach caused even the diehard Dixiecrats at the Morning News to reassess their attitude towards the GOP. In January 1960, Alger won praise from the Morning News for being the only congressman to "get on his feet and salute Robert E. Lee on his birthday." After noting that Alger had fought for "state's rights," the Morning News pointedly asked, "Where were the Democrats — so-called party of the South? Courting the support of Eleanor Roosevelt and the NAACP?" A Morning News editorial in the 1950s almost gasped at the transformation of the two major parties. "[I]t once would have been a phenomenon for a Republican to stand for state's rights or segregation of the races, but it is no longer so. In recent years the Republican party [has done] more to defend state's rights than the Democratic party."

Alger polarized white Dallas in the early 1960s. In 1962, violence erupted at the University of Mississippi when James Meredith, an African American, attempted to register. Alger backed the state of Mississippi's at-times violent resistance to integration and opposed using the National Guard to integrate the university, earning him support in a December 1962 letter from Jimmy G. Robinson of the blue-collar suburb of Garland, just north of Dallas. "Congressman Alger, for the first time in my life on November 6, I went to the polls and voted for a Republican only one and that was you," Robinson wrote. " . . . Prior to the Oct. invasion of Mississippi I took democrats for granted that they were for the south and its southern people. Mr. Alger then I studied the beliefs of my former party & decided that in order for me to vote for the right people I would have to vote Republican just once anyhow."

Robinson, a merchant, would be arrested and fined in 1963 for burning a cross on the lawn of a Jewish refugee from Germany who had been giving lectures at Dallas civic clubs about the similarities between the German Nazi Party and far-right wing groups in America. Robinson's reaction to Alger's segregationist posturing was by no means universal. Segregation deeply offended many new Dallas immigrants. "I have only recently moved into Dallas," Carol Marie Hurd wrote in a September 27, 1962 letter to Alger. "However, I would like you to know that I am deeply disturbed and concerned about the welfare of James Meredith and of all the American negroes . . . It is difficult for me to realize this great scene can yet be carried on in our great country of opportunity and equality."

As these letters suggest, Dallas slouched towards desegregation because no clique was powerful enough to lead the city in a more decisive, dramatic direction. Neither massive resistance nor a true redistribution of economic and racial power was a realistic option. The Dallas Citizens Council, meanwhile, tried to contain the demands of the civil rights movement by working through a Committee of 14, made of seven whites and seven blacks. The black members of the committee were drawn from an older generation of African American leaders, such as A. Maceo Smith and W.J. Durham, who had long negotiated for incremental change.

At the urging of the relatively conservative committee, several stores such as Woolworth's and Walgreen's agreed in the spring of 1960 to integrate their lunch counters. The days were past, however, when Dallas elites could choose which black leaders they would negotiate with, and sit-ins led by blacks outside the traditional power circle broke out all over the city, beginning in October 1960. The protests deepened a generational divide in black Dallas. Rev. E.C. Estell, whose Dallas Community Committee supported the work of the Committee of 14, blasted the sit-ins in a November 1960 speech, decrying the picketers as ignorant. The African American political world was a badly divided as its white counterpart.

Regardless, in the spring of 1960 a group of 58 white and two black SMU theology students sat in at the University Drug Store across the street from the campus. When they refused to leave the lunch counter, owner C.R. Bright hired a fumigation service that pumped insecticide inside the store. Most of the students remained seated, covering their faces with handkerchiefs. The day after the SMU students were gassed, W.J. Durham publicly admitted that negotiations carried on by the Committee of 14 had broken down.

Protestors targeted the downtown Titche-Goettinger Department store and 200 angry students returned to the University Drug Store for a five-hour protest. By May 1961, the spiral of demonstrations threatened Dallas' national image. The general manager of Detroit's Metropolitan Opera Company announced that it would no longer play to segregated audiences, specifically mentioning Dallas and Atlanta as cities notified of the new policy. Facing the threat of business boycotts, the Committee of 14 engineered limited desegregation in downtown Dallas. On July 26, 1961, the Committee of 14 took 159 black patrons to 49 downtown restaurants and lunch counters where they were served without incident.

Even as they backtracked from rigid segregation, elites feared the rise of an order-shattering white mob — those racially marginal whites who lynched, whipped and shot when they faced social demotion. By the late 1950s, Dallas School Superintendent W.T. White prepared for the trouble he expected would follow school desegregation. In May 1957, the board released the results of a questionnaire distributed to Dallas school faculty. Even faculty members more or less favorable to at least gradual integration (about 43 percent of the total) feared "that the troublemakers among students would be those who are already troublemakers or who would be troublemakers in any situation, and they would probably come from the 'underprivileged' of both races."

In November 1960, the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Dallas Independent School District to implement desegregation the following school year. Elites immediately worked to stop any potential rioting and civil disturbance, such as had wracked Little Rock and New Orleans when school desegregation was ordered there.

Key to this effort was a film, Dallas at the Crossroads, produced by public relations expert and Temple Emanu-El member Sam Bloom. The film, shown at dozens of work sites, before civic organizations, and on one Dallas television station, argued that violent reaction to school desegregation would psychologically harm children and convince the world that the city was an unsafe place to do business.

During the 20-minute film, Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry, in full dress uniform, warned that, "The police will devote their energy to controlling those few who do not have the judgment or character to obey the law." Curry ominously added, "We know who those few are." Dallas police, meanwhile, prepared for a riot. Emergency station wagons loaded with riot-control equipment waited at strategic points throughout the city. The much-anticipated disorder, however, never came.

On September 6, 1961, Dallas implemented a so-called stairstep integration plan involving only a grade at time, thus possibly dragging out full integration until the mid-1970s. On the first school day of the 1961-62 term only 18 black elementary school children — attended by an escort of police and school officials — were enrolled at eight previously all-white campuses in the district. Hostile reaction was muted. Officials found a dummy hanging from a flagpole in front of one desegregated school. A nineteen-year-old self-proclaimed segregationist carried a gasoline-saturated cross to Ben Milam Elementary School, one of the integrated campuses, before being arrested.

Dr. White promised there would be no additional transfers of black students to white schools until possibly the next year. Dallas supposedly desegregated three grades by 1964. There were 9,400 black students at those grade levels, but only 131 were in desegregated classrooms. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 placed greater pressure on the school system, which classified 67 of 171 campuses as desegregated by 1966. This quickening pace only hastened white flight to the suburbs, however. By decade's end, only 57 of 177 campuses were deemed integrated. By the end of the 1969-1970 school year, 113 campuses were still all white.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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