By Cathy Harasta
The Texas Catholic
Fifty years ago, a sparkling city shifted in seconds to a heartsick shadow of its former self. When Dallas became the scene of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, the death in Dealey Plaza eclipsed facets of the city’s image as a growing and nimble business center. A reeling, grief-stricken world began to focus on Dallas’ character, atmosphere and the perception that the city harbored an element that was hostile to the Commander in Chief and his ideas.
JFK’s visit followed several polarizing incidents that magnified a Dallas segment’s antagonism toward the Kennedy administration.
In addition, an arch-conservative sector of influential Dallas business leaders and power brokers consistently had criticized JFK’s policies, according to news reports, historians and award-winning author and journalist Hugh Aynesworth, who worked for The Dallas Morning News on Nov. 22, 1963, and is the only reporter to have witnessed JFK’s assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald’s arrest and Jack Ruby’s fatal shooting of Oswald.
On the morning of JFK’s Dallas visit, Aynesworth was eating breakfast when he opened his Dallas Morning News to find a full-page advertisement that derided the president in a series of questions under the banner of, “Welcome Mr. Kennedy to Dallas.”
“We were astounded about the ad,” said Aynesworth, a Dallas resident whose latest book is “November 22, 1963: Witness to History.”
“It wasn’t a welcome, that’s for sure. It was visceral and it was nasty. The mood of Dallas was harsh. We’d had all kinds of problems with a group of arch-conservatives. It was a group of only several hundred but they were against everything that had to do with Kennedy.”
Dallas’ image suffers
After the history-altering tragedy, Dallas gained labels including the “City of Hate,” the “City of Shame” and the capital of the far right.
A deluge of letters to then-Dallas Mayor Earle Cabell expressed outrage, sorrow and condolences. The letters form part of the Cabell Collection at Southern Methodist University’s DeGolyer Library.
A letter from Los Angeles said, in part, “…You’ve taught us to loathe the lowly ignorance of your citizens…”
But some letter-writers, including a junior-high social studies class in upstate New York, sent messages urging Dallas to keep the faith: “…We hope you will have faith in your future and not let this incident destroy your progress,” the students wrote.
In the early 1960s, Dallas, with a population approaching 700,000, was focused on growth and its “Can-Do” image, said Dennis Simon, an SMU associate professor of Political Science who is team-teaching a course this semester on JFK’s life and times.
According to the Texas State Historical Association, companies including Texas Instruments helped Dallas grow in the 1950s and 1960s to become the nation’s third-largest technology center.
In 1957, developers Trammell Crow and John M. Stemmons had opened the forerunner of the Dallas Market Center, the world’s biggest wholesale trade complex, according to the TSHA.
Despite such sources of civic pride, disunity among Dallas business and political leaders characterized the climate of the early 1960s, when national anxiety was rampant concerning who was or was not a Communist.
SMU’s Simon said that JFK’s visit to Texas was not solely a fund-raising trip but that he also wanted to mend a rift between conservative and liberal Democrats, and to woo the state’s electoral votes for his 1964 re-election campaign.
“If you think about Kennedy’s stance on civil rights, that meant that he probably lost the deep South,” Simon said. “Losing the southern states he had won in 1960 meant that the Texas electoral votes would loom large in 1964.”
Several factors and events contributed to the sentiment reflected in the chilly advertisement in The Dallas Morning News on Nov. 22, 1963, said Simon, who noted that the ultra-conservative John Birch Society had a presence locally.
“Dallas was a hotbed of conservatism and this group of Dallas men did not like JFK’s initiatives on Civil Rights, his behavior in the Bay of Pigs incident in 1961 and they did not like the softening of his stance with [Soviet leader] Nikita Khrushchev,” Simon said.
Simon said that a couple of highly publicized events in Dallas set the stage for JFK’s 1963 visit.
A group that reportedly had ties to anti-communist organizations had heckled United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson during his speech at a Dallas auditorium in Oct. 1963—not even a month before JFK’s death. A woman in the crowd reportedly smacked Stevenson on the head with her protest sign.
During the 1960 presidential campaign, jeering protesters confronted JFK’s running mate, Texan Lyndon B. Johnson, and his wife, Lady Bird, in downtown Dallas. Dallas Republican Congressman Bruce Alger reportedly held a prominent position in the mob and brandished a sign that read, “LBJ Sold Out To The Yankee Socialists.”
Johnson later said that the taunters spat upon them as they tried to cross Commerce Street.
Hostility not citywide
These incidents did not reflect the city as a whole, Aynesworth said. He said that retail executive Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus was among those who provided Dallas with a moderate voice.
“The assassination shut up the loud people, the agitators and the haters,” Aynesworth said.
Pastor William H. Dickinson’s sermon at Highland Park Methodist Church on Nov. 24, 1963, a copy of which is archived at SMU’s Bridwell Library, addressed hate and how sophisticated it had become. He preached that, “…Hate, not only in our city but throughout the nation, has become big business and is supported by large contributions and exceedingly competent leadership. And we in Dallas, it seems to me, have more than our share of these extremists. It is not a pretty picture into which an assassin found his place…”
Aynesworth said that the influx of people over the next decades helped Dallas to recover from its tarnished image.
“I think that 70 percent of the people in Dallas now weren’t here in 1963,” he said. “Dallas is more open. There’s still a lot of flash, but it’s a different place than it was when President Kennedy was killed.”