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.

Comments

If President Kennedy visited Dallas (or any city) today, modern progressives would run him out of town on a rail if he had the audacity to suggest, like some uncaring tea party zealot, that citizens should ask what they can do for their country rather than what the welfare state can to buy their votes! :-)

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That comment in Kennedy's Inaugural Address has been misinterpreted by both ends of the spectrum, because it represents a moderate middle view: those of us who do not NEED any specific favors from our country (note that he did NOT say government) to survive OUGHT TO find ways to work and make it better. Those of us who DO need assistance, after receiving it, ought to find ways to make it better for others as well. In other words, the typical American call for VOLUNTARY mutual assistance out of individual liberty.

Today's right wing assumes that "what your country can do for you" means "government welfare" and thus that Kennedy was demonizing the "welfare takers." But "country" means much more than "government." If your aim in life is solely to make a profit from the fact that you live in a prosperous nation, and you do not want to give back to that nation by helping others, or even paying a reasonable amount of taxes on what you earn, Kennedy's admonition is for you.

Furthermore, the right's misconception of the left is that all leftists are always demonstrating for "special" rights, or in other words, to protect them from hateful reactions to their thoughts, actions and words that offend others (personally, I would think that to be a universal HUMAN right), and that they want "special" favors from government (which does not seem to include paying less in taxes than one's employees) because they are "lazy." Just to make the point clearly, Kennedy addressed the behavior in question, in case anyone on the left WAS seriously trying to get his approval for such a lifestyle, with EXACTLY THE SAME couplet which addressed the selfishness of some of the right.

To paraphrase: Ask not (at least not FIRST) what your country (either its government or its natural resources or other people in it) can do for you (in particular); ask (first) rather what you can do (via labor, charitable donations, taxes, or moral example) for your country (to make its government, its economy, and the conditions and attitudes of your fellow citizens) better (for the benefit of everyone, including yourself). And President John F. Kennedy, as a man and as President, worked on living this principle himself, AND on setting up an institution by which others would have a vehicle to do so (the Peace Corps).

Also, in his famous moon landing address, he told us, "we choose to go to the moon, and to do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." Many of the challenges facing us are hard; not only hard in themselves, but threatening to the beliefs and ideologies of some, and threatening to the selfish interests of others. For that reason, we tend to look for "easy" solutions, or to ignore some problems because they may take effort away from others we consider more important, making them "harder" to do. Perhaps we can take inspiration from that other Kennedy speech and try doing all of them together, BECAUSE it is harder to do them all together.

We can choose to give all our citizens health care when it is needed, including prevention; to pay all who are willing and able to work a living wage (even doing something that is not valued in the "free" market, but which every reasonable person agrees "needs doing"); to care for those who are too old, too unhealthy, or too young to work (and without adequate support of a parent or other adult); to invest in ways to enable and empower the disabled via medical and/or prosthetic assistance as needed, so that they CAN work (as, for example, Britain did for its most famous contemporary physicist); to relieve the stress on the natural systems of our planet that threaten universal disaster; to do ALL OF THESE THINGS, "not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

Nice deconstruction, ThinkingDem.

Tommy, I don't see the Tea Party trying to do anything for the country, or even pretending to want to. They seem pretty self-centered to me.

Concur, thoughtful deconstruction, ThinkingDem. I do always question thoughts like: “even doing something that is not valued in the "free" market.” As usual, you appreciate being generous with someone else’s money.

That said, the more telling statement came from robdashu, ‘I don't see the Tea Party trying to do anything for the country, or even pretending to want to.” It really strikes at the essence of the difference between the so-called “conservative,” and the so-called “liberal” (now “progressive?”). The liberal is going up against evil – folks that do not care. Hence, lying (by the President, or anyone else) is acceptable – “look what we are up against, we must use EVERY means.” Conservatives believe they are going up against ignorance (not stupidity). That is a vastly different approach: “hey, you want a living wage for everyone (believe it or not we do too), but economists well know that for 2500 years all a “minimum wage” does is price newcomers out of the workplace.” (for fun, check Representative Clayton Allgood, Congressional Record, 1931, p. 6513). One is up against evil, the other is trying to make a convincing argument.

Given the complexity of Lee Harvey Oswald's political background, I have a difficult time connecting any right wing "haters" in Dallas with the assassination. Remember the "Fair Play for Cuba Committee?"

If I had to put money down, I'd go with either a Mafia hit or Castro getting back at the US for its many attempts on his life.

Just sayin'.

On this, it's worth reading the piece on "stochastic terrorism" at http://stochasticterrorism.blogspot.com/ . Your model of causation is OK for movies & TV, but in the real world a diffuse atmosphere of violent talk can license violence from any quarter.

Imagine President Kennedy presenting a plan to Congress to go to the moon. It was unbelievable then and today would be demonized and quickly opposed. Only a few white men controlled all the money in the south. Only a few control most of the money today. The Hunts of Texas are named in many books on the JFK murder because they had a get-together at their home with Hoover of the FBI flying in to their private airport for the meeting. The murder happened the next day. Today the sons of the John Birch society, the Koch Brothers, spend millions in false ads that change public opinion. First as one of the great polluters they bought politicians like Scot Walker of WI who immediately gave them permission to pollute a river. Now they are running false ads about Obamacare. All done through false fronts approved by the gang of 5 on the SCOTUS. Texas is still radical, but President Obama managed to fly in and out safely last week. His route was not diverted at the last minute. He did not ride in an open car. The Secret Service did not have half their men sent to the rear. The power of the US still is largely in the hands of Bushco. Obama would not be President if the Bushwreck had not diverted money to create the 1%. As soon as the south was desegregated they flipped to the Republican party. Without the federal government the south would remain segregated. Must be time for a federal government shut down again.

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