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Last year’s 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas stirred many memories, and lots of revisiting the facts, the evidence and the conspiracy theories. In another 50 years, we will probably revisit the same information, still searching for resolution.
In “Dallas 1963,” authors Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis don’t spend more than a few pages on the actual assassination. Instead, they provide a context in which to view and consider the event – the emotional, political, and economic climate of Dallas in the years leading up to JFK’s fatal visit. Beginning with election year 1960, Minutaglio and Davis present a gripping timeline narrative of the strong personalities and deeply rooted racism and paranoia that influenced the city and its right-wing leaders, all thrust into the spotlight by events on Nov. 22, 1963.
Oil-money was flowing in Dallas in the post-Eisenhower years. The city flourished under the guardianship of the Dallas Citizens Council – a group of wealthy, mostly extreme right-wing, business and community leaders. Their span of powerful influence came from the pulpit (W.A. Criswell and the Dallas First Baptist Church), the media (Ted Dealey and the Dallas Morning News) and finance (billionaire H.L. Hunt).
The only odd-man out in this group was Stanley Marcus – a Jewish moderate who understood that Dallas needed to change with the times. His landmark store, Neiman Marcus, catered to the upper echelon of Republican money in the south, but Marcus quietly supported the progressive Democratic bid for the presidency.
After Kennedy was elected, fear among the right-wing extremists escalated. Nuclear power was in the hands of the Communists, Medicare and tax changes were on the horizon, Jim Crow laws were dead, and the Pope had a puppet in the White House. In Dallas, far-right groups like the John Birch Society and the National Indignation Convention had gained momentum. The conservatives had found a new spokesman in Edwin Walker, an army general who resigned after being demoted for using his rank to proselytize his political beliefs.
But there were other voices emerging: The Reverend Rhett James convinced the Citizens Council to allow 18 black children to enter first grade at an all-white public school. Juanita Craft and the NAACP peaceably integrated downtown lunch counters and movie theaters. Stanley Marcus continued his mission to globalize his city through the Dallas Council on World Affairs and support of Adlai Stevenson and the United Nations. And, following Kennedy’s naval blockade of Cuba, angry young men like Lee Harvey Oswald found a voice in the far-left community.
Once the national headquarters of the KKK, Dallas had experienced cross burnings and racially motivated hate crimes. But now there was an increase in violence throughout the U.S. and, combined with all the noise from opposing political factions, there was a tension in Dallas that could be felt.
When a “mink coat mob” spit on LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson during the final days of the 1960 campaign, many Texans were embarrassed by their treatment. By 1963, when Martin Luther King and Adlai Stevenson visited Dallas, protests against them were more organized, sophisticated, and threatening. This was the Dallas that Kennedy visited on that sunny winter day in 1963.
“Dallas 1963” is fascinating nonfiction that reads like a novel.
This is the story of a growing “modern” city struggling with change. What is unique and frightening is that those who were fighting the inevitable weren’t hiding in the shadows or underneath KKK hoods. These were men who publicly and proudly exploited their power, money, and position to support their world view. It is disturbing and far too easy to draw parallels to today’s political extremism, especially when we know how this story ends.
Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis are featured authors for the 2014 San Antonio Book Festival. They will join fellow author Cary Clack in discussion of “Dallas 1963” from 10 to 10:45 a.m. on April 5 Rogers Hall, Southwest School of Art, Navarro Campus (1st Floor). Download the full festival schedule as a PDF here. For a more interactive approach, download Eventbase from the app store on your phone (iPhone or Android) and you can customize your own schedule for the day by choosing favorites.