Wednesday, July 27, 2011

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

In 2006, the University of Texas Press published my first book "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001." To mark the fifth anniversary of that publication, I am serializing it at this blog site. Here, I discuss what the reaction within the city of Dallas to the Kennedy assassination reveals about the city's class and racial politics.

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.

In spite of the relatively mild reaction, the threat of backlash from congenitally savage whites continued to be the excuse for keeping Jim Crow languishing in its death throes. Nevertheless, alienation of white elites from the working class increased as the 1960s progressed. No clearer evidence existed of the gap between the city's rulers and the ruled than the Dallas reaction to the presidency of John Kennedy. To the Dallas establishment and its voice, the Dallas Morning News, Kennedy represented an ideological nightmare, the personification of federal government policies that redistributed wealth and political influence from the powerful to blacks and the poor. In the 1960 presidential race, Kennedy enjoyed substantial support among lower-income whites. In his race against Vice President Richard Nixon, Kennedy carried 45 percent of the poor white vote in the city during an election that he won with only 49.7 percent of the vote nationally. Kennedy received support from only 23 percent of the Dallas upper class.

As always, elites cast a wary look at the white lower classes for signs of future disorder. Elements of the city's middle and upper classes, however, posed an immediate threat to the public peace. Less than a week before the 1960 presidential elections, a mob assaulted Democratic Vice Presidential nominee (and Texas Senator) Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird as they left the Adolphus Hotel. The pro-Nixon demonstrators, mostly women followers of Bruce Alger, spat on and shoved Lyndon Johnson and his wife and snatched Lady Bird's gloves and threw them in the gutter as Alger, who had organized the protest, stood nearby with a sign that read "LBJ Sold Out to Yankee Socialists." Embarrassed for the city, one Johnson staffer later unconvincingly blamed the incident on riff-raff from downtown bars and "lower class" restaurants rather than on the well-dressed, upper middle class Junior Leaguers who made up most of the crowd.

Once famous as a clean, efficient, well-run city, the rise of the right wing made Dallas appear more like a capital of crackpots, the insanity spreading from the top down. Dallas got more unwanted attention when a reactionary mob, including former General Edwin Walker (a Dallas resident who had been fired from the army by Kennedy for distributing John Birch Society literature to his troops), spat upon United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson after he made an October 26, 1963 speech marking United Nations Day to the Dallas Council on World Affairs. Once again, an angry gathering of middle class, upper middle class and even wealthy men and women rioted, rocking Stevenson’s limousine back and forth before a driver finally raced the ambassador to safety.

When the president fatefully visited Dallas on November 22, 1963, city's class tensions blew apart. On that day a group of wealthy oil men bought an ad in the Dallas Morning News designed like a wanted poster that charged Kennedy with treason, massive crowds gathered for the president and showered him and the First Lady with affection. The streets along the motorcade routes were lined and triple-lined with a quarter of a million people, Jim Bishop reported in his account of the assassination. Kennedy received a "rip-roaring hell-bent-for-election Western-style welcome."

While the "oil men in the mahogany chambers with the deep pile rugs" angrily shut off television coverage of the visit, a wildly enthusiastic throng gave the supposedly too-liberal-for-Dallas president a full-throated welcome. "He [Kennedy] had won the endorsement of the people in spite of their masters," Bishop wrote. Dallas' ruling bloc found it was discredited even before the first angry crack of an assassin’s rifle fire echoed through Dealey Plaza.

To an extent that Memphis would not be held accountable for the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. nor Los Angeles for the killing of Robert F. Kennedy, the world blamed Dallas for JFK's assassination. Instead of the civilization builders portrayed by Holland McCombs and other creators of the Origin Myth, Dallas' leaders now seemed small-minded and the source of a climate that made the president's death possible.

"In the storm of grief and anger that subsequently swept down upon Dallas, the city was widely characterized as the 'hate capital of the nation,' a place so steeped in violence and political extremism that school children would cheer the President's death . . . ," Fortune magazine reporter Richard Austin Smith noted. ". . . [T]he business leadership of the city began to be singled out for censure . . . [Elites were] responsible for the character of Dallas, and if they had done a better job of leading, the city would not have earned its international reputation for violence and hatred and intolerance."

Elites were victims of their own mythology. If Dallas' business rulers were as omnipotent as Holland McCombs had insisted in his portrait of the city's "dydamic" leadership in Fortune 15 years earlier, then they had to bear the bloody responsibility for the actions of a lone, left-leaning nut hiding in a store room of a school book depository. They had willed Kennedy's murder, just as surely as they had earlier summoned into existence the "city with no reason for being."

Hoping to prevent a PR meltdown, traditional elites chased the New Right into a political closet. Alger's followers had been implicated in the pre-assassination assaults on Lyndon Johnson and Adlai Stevenson. This association became a liability after November 22, 1963. Elites united behind Mayor Earle Cabell in his bid to unseat Alger in November 1964. The ultra-conservative Cabell beat Alger by 44,000 votes out of 200,000 ballots cast. Elites insisted that the lesson from the Alger era was that Dallas should not stray from its traditional, old rich, male ruling class. Even liberals like author Warren Leslie, a Neiman-Marcus department store executive, contributed to this propaganda. Leslie, in his post-assassination best seller Dallas Public and Private, blamed the city's right wing climate of the 1950s and 1960s partly on the community's "shifting class mobility" and on politically active women.

"Since problems of insecurity often bring on anger and the desire to lash out, it is not surprising that in emotional matters (and in America, that would certainly include politics) women are often angrier than men," he wrote. In Dallas, status was attached to right wing politics, which provided competitive incentives for "compulsive right wing women" to outdo their neighbors in extremism. "At manifestations [of the right wing] in Dallas over these years, women have been, on the whole, more obviously numerous, more vocal, more absolute and sometimes more physical than men," Leslie wrote. " . . . In earlier days . . . female fury usually manifested itself in the sex war with men. Since the suffragettes, women have been turning it on ideological concepts . . . Such [women's minds] . . . will be politically as organized . . . as it is in other ways . . . [in] black and white." For years, Leslie's armchair Freudianism stood as the standard explanation for Dallas culture and politics.

Probably recalling the female leadership of the Red Scare in Houston, Leslie made women a convenient scapegoat to blame for Dallas' right-wing extremism. The leaders and the bankrollers of the right, such as Alger, Walker, H.L. Hunt and Clint Murchison, were male and had a large male following. Yet, elites claimed that the city's right wing problem resulted from the infusion into county politics of female nouveau riche outsiders not blessed with male calm and rationality. Restoration of traditional conservative male leaders to power would soothe Dallas' troubled waters. Even as traditional racial ideology weakened, elites tried to reinforce the dogma of upper class male supremacy.

The impact of the Kennedy murder on municipal politics held profound implications. The Dallas Citizens Council and its Citizens Charter Association political arm effectively lost control of city hall by the early 1970s, the death knell coming in 1975 when a federal court ruled that the city's at-large system of electing council members was unconstitutional. This transformation was quiet. But even as white Dallasites congratulated themselves on the city's relative lack of racial disorder, they continued to cast worried looks over their shoulders at their black and brown neighbors. Even as they lost monopoly control on municipal politics, elites watched with horror the racially charged urban riots in cities like Los Angeles in 1965 and Detroit in 1967.

Dallas elites always believed deeply in the city's exceptionalism, but after Kennedy's death this cherished delusion faded. In Race Relations and the Intergroup Climate in Dallas, Texas, a 1967 report compiled by the bureaucratically-named North Texas Chapter of the National Association of Intergroup Relations Officials, the organization's chairman Robert F. Greenwald noted, "It has been said that Dallas enjoys a healthy climate of racial and ethnic relations. There has been little 'trouble.' Organized protest is rare. Visible signs of unrest are seldom in evidence."

In spite of the apparent tranquility, Greenwald felt, at best, a shaky confidence about the city's long-term prognosis. After noting that racial peace and racial justice are not synonymous, Greenwald nervously observed that, "The Reader's Digest in October, 1964 published an article on 'How Los Angeles Eases Racial Tensions.' It was the story of a city convinced of its own interracial well-being. Los Angeles by then had developed what was thought to be one of the more sophisticated human relations programs in the nation. Then, the following summer — WATTS."

Dallas elites could well be nervous as they looked at other cities still dazzled seven decades later by Henry Grady's late nineteenth century vision of a New South. Dallas had shared much with Atlanta, with both cities by the late twentieth century enjoying prominence as banking centers and headquarters for international businesses.

Three major players in Dallas' racial history — anti-lynching crusader Jessie Daniel Ames, Ku Klux Klan leader Hiram Evans and African American minister Maynard Jackson (whose namesake son would become Atlanta's first black mayor in the 1970s) — played a key role in Atlanta's black-white relations. Both cities, marked by Civil War-era fires, had obliterated most physical reminders of their antebellum pasts, and in their boosterism sought to emphasize differences between their communities and the rest of the South. Atlanta and Dallas both had significant Jewish populations whose leadership tenuously claimed acceptance as white.

The two cities each had fractured white elites and a political system that for much of the twentieth century blocked African American access to state and national elections but allowed the black community to exercise influence on municipal politics. In both cities, black leaders for most of the twentieth century urged patience, practiced realpolitik and negotiated incremental reforms as the best means to political emancipation.

Both civic leaderships had buried their histories of violence and resistance so that Dallas' 1860 fire, Atlanta's 1906 race riot and the 1915 Leo Frank lynching seemed grotesque aberrations. Both cities, while achieving only painfully slow school desegregation and token black political representation by the mid-1960s, bragged that because of their moderate white and black leadership they had escaped the chaos and violence consuming Birmingham, New Orleans, Little Rock and other Southern cities after World War II.

By the mid-1960s much of Atlanta's carefully woven image had frayed. Mayor William Hartsfield oversaw the quick and minimal desegregation of Atlanta schools (with Atlanta officials looking to Dallas as a role model). Martin Luther King, Jr.'s presence guaranteed that the desegregation of downtown Atlanta would be accomplished non-violently. Hartsfield and his moderate allies could not completely contain the rage inspired when some whites feared a loss of status or the anger of blacks when minimal reform produced minimal results.

In October 1958 a reform temple was bombed in Atlanta, as was an African American elementary school in 1960. Atlanta's image as a city too busy to hate completely deflated by the time of a police shooting enflamed a 1966 revolt in a poor African American neighborhood whose wealth had been drained by white flight. Though the Atlanta uprising proved extremely mild compared to the earlier uprising in Watts, Dallas elites must have been alarmed at the unraveling spectacle in such a similar social setting.

The increasing assertiveness of the black political leadership in Dallas intensified such white angst. Newer civil rights groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), impatient with the few tangible benefits earned through conservative reform, pushed aside traditional leaders like A. Maceo Smith, who were now viewed as collaborators with white racism.

SNCC sought to solve African American problems by buying out white businesses catering primarily to black customers. SNCC aimed its sights at OK supermarkets, but when the grocery chain refused to sell, members supposedly retaliated with a "bottle-smashing raid" at one store. A jury convicted two members of SNCC of destroying property and gave them the draconian sentence of 10 years. The Dallas police and district attorney targeted SNCC, with various members arrested for felonies, including one member framed on an armed robbery charge. Under such pressure, so-called radical organizations such as SNCC proved short-lived.


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.

No comments: