The Radicalism of Dallas, 1963
By early 1963, Dallas was the most singular city in America—it had become, without question, the roiling headquarters for the angry, absolutist resistance to John F. Kennedy and his administration.
A confederacy of like-minded men had coalesced in Dallas: the anti-Catholic leader of the largest Baptist congregation in America, the far-right media magnate who published the state’s leading newspaper, the most ideologically extreme member of Congress, and the wealthiest man in the world—oilman H.L. Hunt. Together they formed the most vitriolic anti-Kennedy movement in the nation. And they began to attract others who were even more extreme to the city.
Ex-Army General Edwin A. Walker had been relieved of command by Kennedy for brainwashing his troops with John Birch Society propaganda. After angrily resigning from the service, Walker knew exactly where to go to lead his new anti-Kennedy campaign. He moved to Dallas, where he was welcomed by the mayor and given an honorary Stetson in a public ceremony witnessed by thousands.
For Walker and many others in the high-powered quarters of the city, Kennedy threatened to subvert everything the Republic stood for. As they saw it, Kennedy worshipped a dangerous, foreign religion. He was spending the country into bankruptcy trying to buy the votes of minorities. He favored expanding government health care with his Medicare proposal. He was plotting to surrender the sovereignty of the United States to the United Nations.
Perhaps worst of all, Kennedy supported integration. Reverend Criswell, the leader of Dallas’s First Baptist Church, had already spoken clearly on civil rights: “Let them integrate! Let them sit up there in their dirty shirts and make all their fine speeches. But they are all a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up!” Ex-General Edwin Walker would make his own views known soon enough, leading the deadly riots at Ole Miss, where two people were killed and dozens of U.S. Marshals were seriously wounded by gunfire on September 30, 1962 when a black student, James Meredith, attempted to register for classes. Walker was arrested for sedition and insurrection on Kennedy’s personal orders.
But to Walker and his allies in Dallas, it was Kennedy who was guilty of betraying the country. The rhetoric in Dallas began to ratchet up. Kennedy was a socialist, a traitor. Kennedy was aiding and abetting the enemy. Kennedy should be impeached. Kennedy was guilty of treason.
While Kennedy attempted to govern the country, Dallas would be, many of the citizen kings decided, the last bastion of resistance. They would send out a sort of siren call from “the heartland”—one luring more and more people to the Buckle of the Bible Belt. To a place that brazenly hung onto its “Southern traditions.”
Dallas had been the national headquarters of the KKK in the 1920s, and well into the early 1960s it was one of the last major American cities aggressively resisting integrating its classrooms—long after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision ordering school desegregation.
It was, perhaps, all in the DNA of the city. Dallas had been carved out of nothing. There were no ports or natural resources that would suggest Dallas was a place to build a city. It was willed into existence by a handful of ballsy, wildcatting entrepreneurs and former Confederate stalwarts arriving on the prairie in the late 1800s. Together, they created the city’s unofficial, lingering, motto: “What’s good for business is good for Dallas.”
In time, the giddily overt presence of the KKK, which occasionally staged massive street parades downtown, was deemed “not good” for business, and the Klan faded from public view. But the mayor of the pro-Richard Nixon city in 1960 was a former Klansman. And he was replaced in 1961 by a man whose grandfather had not only been a mayor, but a general immortalized in the city’s largest public monument: a towering downtown memorial to the Confederacy.
Black residents trying to integrate lunch counters (and segregated areas of the famous Neiman-Marcus emporium), knew the “traditions” were never far away. The city’s iconic public symbol—a giant glowing neon sign depicting a red Pegasus—was affixed to a building once owned by the Grand Dragon of the KKK.
Finally, though, in emergency meetings in the early 1960s, the citizen kings who ran Dallas weighed a scary alternative: If blacks persisted in fomenting revolution, then that would be even worse for business. In a fit of enlightened self-interest in the fall of 1961, they allowed Dallas to begin one of the most painfully slow school desegregations in American history.
But the extremist anti-Kennedy hysteria persisted. Dallas remained on edge in the months before the president arrived. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to speak in the city in early 1963—and there was a bomb threat against him. United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson came to Dallas a month before Kennedy, to talk about the nation being part of the world community—and was attacked by a swirling, spitting, xenophobic mob. When Kennedy arrived in November, he was greeted by a full page advertisement in the Dallas Morning News accusing him of being a Communist sympathizer. More chillingly, General Walker’s troops had distributed thousands of handbills along the streets of Dallas, picturing Kennedy on a “wanted” poster with the message: “WANTED FOR TREASON.”
And then Kennedy was killed.
Before Lee Harvey Oswald’s capture, everyone assumed that a right-winger had done it. General Walker, who was on a plane over Louisiana, immediately collected the names of the other passengers on the flight, knowing that he would likely need witnesses for an alibi. Meanwhile, the Dallas Police department was flooded with phone calls from distraught housewives in the city, each of them sobbingly confessing that it must have been her husband who had killed Kennedy.
And then the leftist was arrested. Oswald’s motivations remained murky—even more so after it was discovered that he had tried earlier in 1963 to assassinate Kennedy’s most vocal opponent, General Walker in Dallas. Oswald’s bullet just missed Walker’s head, passing through the general’s hair. One thing is clear about Oswald—he seemed drawn to Dallas, attracted by the political heat the city was generating. He was living in a hothouse environment, an increasingly vitriolic place. He monitored the scene when General Walker prepared his troops for the mob action against Adlai Stevenson in Dallas. Oswald called himself a Marxist, but of course he was a total failure in that regard. His defection to the Soviet Union was a disaster. He believed that he would be welcomed as a great hero and become an influential advisor to the government. Instead, he was assigned menial work at a radio factory. After he slunk back to the U.S., he remained committed to Marxism, even as he openly despised the working class. Mostly, he was a misfit, a somewhat malleable figure who wanted more than anything to make a statement, to be seen as an important person. His rifle gave him the chance.
Although Oswald had pulled the trigger, many people in America blamed Dallas for Kennedy’s death. The city’s image had been fixed by all those stories of extremist hatred for Kennedy in Dallas. For years after the assassination, people from Dallas learned to be vague when asked where they were from. They would lie and name another town. David Halberstam once said that he could never root for the Dallas Cowboys because they were from the city where his president had been killed.
The citizen kings went into crisis control after the assassination. Some even asked the president’s widow if she would do public relations work on behalf of the city, defending it to its detractors. She never replied to their entreaty.
The extremists who had blackened the city’s image were eased out of power, or forced to change their ways. The radically anti-JFK congressman was defeated by a more centrist establishment candidate. The publisher of the Dallas Morning News drifted into retirement. Reverend Criswell gradually become more accommodating about integration. General Walker remained a radical rightist, but he lost support after he was arrested for fondling an undercover policeman in a Dallas park.
As the radicals faded from view, Dallas returned to selling its major strengths. It recast itself as a moderate, pragmatic bastion of anti-government regulation with low taxes. It projected an image of a well-mannered, conservative Christian culture with exceedingly accommodating local politicians. In the years after Kennedy’s death, the city rolled out the carpet and lured more and more multinational companies.
Some said that Dallas was becoming the very face of the New South. But the assassination, and all that it implied, was still in the marrow.
Dallas endured many years of angst as it considered how to deal with Kennedy’s death. An uninspiring concrete monument was installed on Dealey Plaza, but the city actively discouraged visitors. The schoolbook depository where Oswald worked was nearly torn down. Finally, in the 1980s, the city decided to renovate the building and create a world-class museum dedicated to John F. Kennedy. The Sixth Floor Museum opened in 1989 and is a major tourist destination in Dallas.
The city has continued to evolve. In the 1990s, it elected its first black mayor, Ron Kirk, who received strong support from the business community. As many white conservatives have fled to northern suburbs (where they have formed some of the most conservative precincts in America), Dallas has ironically become the bluest city in Texas after Austin. In the 2012 election, Barack Obama won Dallas County by 15 percentage points over Mitt Romney.
Yet Dallas also remains true to many of its Dixiecrat roots—even if many of the voters no longer live in the city proper. George W. Bush never hesitated to relocate to Dallas after leaving the White House—and he moved into a neighborhood filled with his biggest supporters, including many oilmen and Harold Simmons, the billionaire who helped fund the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry. Despite resistance from some faculty and residents, Bush’s lavish library and museum opened earlier this year at Southern Methodist University. (His father has his own presidential library a few hours away at Texas A&M University).
When Barack Obama visited Dallas in 2010, Tea Party fever was breaking out and he was greeted by nearly 1,000 protesters. The crowd gathered in a high school football stadium and held signs that would have looked very much at home in the Dallas of 1963. The placards accused Obama of being a socialist, of being a traitor, of committing treason. The confederate flags of 1963 have been replaced by the Tea Party’s “Don’t Tread on Me” banners. Outside the stadium stood a lone pair of counter-protesters. Their sign made explicit the connection between the anti-JFK and anti-Obama hatred: “HATERS KILLED JFK.”
In 2013, the extremist movement that began in Dallas is no longer confined to the city. Back in 1963, Dallas made national front-page news for its violent, hate-filled protests against Kennedy’s “socialism.” These days, Tea Party protests calling the president a traitor are so common—and are ubiquitous in all corners of the country—that they barely make a dent in the news.
John Kennedy, if he visited Dallas today, would no longer see a city uniquely defined as a “city of hate.” But if he looked around the country, he would see that the Dallas virus has gone national.
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