By Jeff Miller
Special to The Texas Catholic
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins was a somewhat fuzzy-cheeked 20-year-old when his Baylor University law studies took him to Cambridge, England in the early 1980s. When the local lads learned Jenkins was a Dallas native, he said initial associations were predictably confined to two responses: J.R. Ewing of TV fame and “that’s where President Kennedy was shot.”
Little did Jenkins know then the shadow of that tragic day in November 1963 would eventually follow him almost daily in his working life. Jenkins’ Dallas office is located on the second floor of 411 Elm Street, a structure known worldwide as the former Texas School Book Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald is believed to have fired a rifle from a sixth-floor window and assassinated John F. Kennedy.
“I look out at Dealey Plaza and see people standing on the X in the middle of the street, people talking in German and French and other languages,” Jenkins said.
Fifty years later, Dallas continues to evolve and deal with its loathed connection with one of the most horrific episodes in American history. Jenkins and Bishop Kevin J. Farrell of the Diocese of Dallas were among dozens of civic leaders who collectively organized a series of events and activities related to the anniversary, including the Nov. 22 event highlighted by speeches from Mayor Mike Rawlings and historical author David McCullough.
“I think that we have to try and get over Dallas as the ‘city of hate,’” Bishop Farrell said in a recent interview with The Texas Catholic’s Cathy Harasta, “and I think we have come a long way.”
Those sentiments were echoed by another remembrance committee member, State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who came to Dallas in the spring of 1964 as a sixth-grader and recalls a somber mood still engulfing Wheatley Elementary School then.
“We have refused to allow Dallas to be defined by what an individual did here on that dark day,” West said. He added he believes Kennedy related to the racial struggles of the early 1960s because he experienced prejudice being the first Catholic elected president.
Rick Ortiz, president and CEO of the Greater Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and another committee member, recalls Kennedy was likewise beginning to forge a bond with the nation’s Latino population.
“Just the other night, a member of our board from Honduras told me that he remembered as a young child what it meant there when they heard the news,” said Ortiz, a Catholic born in El Paso in 1970 and a Dallas resident for 10 years. “There was a lot of hope for what could happen between the United States and South and Central America.”
As for the assassination’s tie to Dallas, Ortiz said, “I haven’t seen that as being what I consider the [city’s] identity. Or by others.”
Father Timothy Gollob has served in the Dallas Diocese since his ordination in 1958 and is among those who believe Dallas’ association to the tragedy was strengthened because Oswald was murdered only two days later and couldn’t answer questions from a grieving, angered public. Father Gollob applauded the establishment of The Sixth Floor Museum in 1989 as a significant advancement in the city’s acknowledgement of the tragedy.
“They [civic leaders] started off being very guilty,” said Father Gollob, pastor of Oak Cliff’s Holy Cross Parish since 1969. “Then they went through a long period of time kind of ignoring it. But with the Sixth Floor Museum, they started to get their act together. Then they had some focal point.
“Now, with the 50th anniversary, they’re almost saying, ‘We’re going to vindicate ourselves and really remember it,’ which is good.”
Former Dallas Morning News writer Bill Minutaglio recently co-authored the book “Dallas 1963” that detailed the incendiary, right-wing political climate found in the city then.
As for being “the city that killed the president, of course, that was hogwash and a lie,” said Minutaglio, now a journalism professor at the University of Texas. As for five decades later, he added, “Dallas has become a truly international city, with Fortune 500 companies, a former president living here. Fewer and fewer people instantly associate Dallas with the assassination.”
The Rev. William Holmes was pastor at Dallas’ Northaven United Methodist Church in 1963 and roundly criticized for his Nov. 24, 1963 sermon that charged the city’s tumultuous political environment indeed contributed to the shooting; excerpts were broadcast that week on Walter Cronkite’s “CBS Evening News.”
Holmes, now a distinguished alumnus of SMU’s Perkins School of Divinity, lived in Dallas until 1966 and retired in 1998 as senior minister of the denomination’s National Church in Washington, D.C.
“I think Dallas will be known as the site of the Kennedy assassination for many years to come,” Rev. Holmes stated by email, “but I also think it possible for Dallas to embrace that reality, including the negative events which preceded it, and create a positive and promising future of civil politics, democratic representation and social justice.”
Part of the civic remembrance was the Dallas County Commissioners Court’s “Ask Not” Day of Service initiative spearheaded by Jenkins and named for the beginning of the oft-quoted line in Kennedy’s inauguration speech. On Thursday, Nov. 21, various organizations, government entities and school districts in Dallas and other county municipalities were scheduled to perform service projects in the memory of a president who challenged Americans to directly contribute to the national good, their only sure compensation being “a good conscience.”
“I can think of no better way to commemorate President Kennedy’s legacy,” Jenkins said.