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New Dawn in Dallas

Fifty years after the Kennedy assassination, Main Street values trump political ideology

Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By DAVID DEVOSS
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The Sunday after Kennedy was shot my dad and I drove downtown to Dealey Plaza. It was an apology of sorts since my parents had refused to let me skip school to see the presidential motorcade on November 22. We were standing on the grassy knoll between the Old Red Courthouse and the Triple Underpass when our neighbors from across the street—a man and his teenage son my age—walked up with a noose and began exhorting bystanders to go lynch Lee Harvey Oswald. The mood of the crowd quickly turned from consternation to embarrassment, and it wasn’t long before people began inching backward. At that point, somebody with a transistor radio yelled, “Lee Harvey’s been shot!” 

Dallas

The Kennedy motorcade

A number of people began walking briskly toward police headquarters nine blocks away. The rest of us stood there mute, transfixed by the specter of frontier justice galloping unbidden into the heart of the 20th century.

A half-century ago, Dallas was a regional city of 680,000 whose contribution to national culture consisted of Dr Pepper, Frito-Lay, and a three-year-old football team called the Cowboys. The town was 75 percent white, ruled by a Citizens Council of oligarchs, and largely un-air-conditioned. Following the Kennedy assassination, the only home I knew was labeled a “city of hate.”

Dallas’s critics did not lack for examples. After becoming John Kennedy’s running mate in 1960, Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird were screamed at and spit upon by a group of well-dressed women while trying to enter a downtown hotel for a political event. Their greeting was organized by Dallas congressman Bruce Alger, who stood nearby during the attack holding a sign that said, “LBJ Sold Out to Yankee Socialists.” 

The most outspoken critic of what would become the Kennedy administration was the Dallas Morning News. In 1960, it explained in an editorial that it was endorsing Richard Nixon for president to stop “this nation’s unrelenting drive toward a welfare state and its inevitable end, Marxian socialism.”

Three years later and just one month before Kennedy’s fateful visit, United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson suffered an attack similar to Johnson’s when he was accosted following a U.N. Day speech by screaming protesters, one of whom hit Stevenson with a “Down With the U.N.” placard provided by Gen. Edwin Walker, an ardent anti-Communist who was spearheading the drive to impeach Chief Justice Earl Warren. 

Stevenson’s treatment prompted a Time magazine story headlined “A City Disgraced” and alarmed the Citizens Council, which grew concerned that some civic embarrassment might mar the upcoming presidential visit. Dallas officials immediately began planning an elaborate welcome for Kennedy, Johnson, and Texas governor John Connally. But years of Dallas Morning News invective could not be erased overnight. Days before Kennedy’s arrival, “Wanted for Treason” posters bearing a mug-shot-style photo of the president began circulating on Dallas streets.

On the morning of November 22, 1963, the News published a full-page advertisement framed in funereal black with the sarcastic headline “Welcome Mr. Kennedy to Dallas.” Purchased by the John Birch Society, the ad posed a series of 12 questions, one of which was: “Why have you scrapped the Monroe Doctrine in favor of the ‘Spirit of Moscow’?” 

Nearly 200,000 residents, almost one-third of the city’s population, lined the streets to welcome the Kennedys. But one afternoon’s cheers could not obscure years of extremism. For people born and raised in Dallas who defined their hometown by the “Big D” melody in the musical Most Happy Fella, the assassination was devastating.  

“The demonstration against the Johnsons, the attack on Adlai Stevenson, Bruce Alger’s behavior, and the ‘Wanted for Treason’ fliers established the city’s profile,” says Southern Methodist University political science professor Dennis Simon. “Then follow it up with television’s first live murder and you have a nationwide narrative of what Dallas is all about.” 

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