JFK assassination marked changing times for civil rights in black Dallas

Print
Email
|

by JOHN McCAA

Bio | Email | Follow: @johnmccaa

WFAA

Posted on February 22, 2013 at 11:45 PM

Updated Thursday, Oct 10 at 10:50 AM

DALLAS -- Even a few historians have forgotten that John F. Kennedy made two public visits to Dallas in the 1960s, both of them riding in parades downtown.

The trip was in September 1960, a few weeks before the election. Snippets of film from the era show John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson meeting people at Love Field, shaking hands and re-kindling old friendships. Other film clips show Kennedy riding through downtown Dallas, smiling and waving from an open car on what appeared to be a pleasant day that went off without incident.

Both men were still candidates for higher office in a very tight race.

Johnson, though a favorite son, had already faced some brutal criticism for his work as Senate majority leader on the Civil Rights Bill of 1957. In office, he and Kennedy would see resistance growing to effort to desegregate public schools and public accommodations.

The image most American had of Dallas was the carefully-crafted Hollywood version present in the 1962 film “State Fair.”

For blacks however, it was not a time of joy. Dallas schools remained segregated, despite federal law outlawing separate-but-equal schooling.

The Reverend Zan Holmes was a seminary student at SMU at the time. Protests in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi were getting most of the national media attention, but he saw the second-class treatment received by blacks in Dallas and their responses.

“We had demonstrations, we had marches, it was all here," he said. "The dissatisfaction with the way things were... We could have easily had a riot."

Black Dallas was a separate world, in which well-known political figures, such as Medgar Evers and Thurgood Marshall, and celebrities, like Sammy Davis, Jr., came through, but segregation was strictly enforced.

In fact across Texas, different treatment based on race was part of an engrained social system.

US Trade representative Ron Kirk grew up in Austin and rode his bike to the state capitol, but couldn’t get water inside or use the restroom.

“The colored fountain was a well on the grounds of the capitol... that had that horrible sulphur smell and to this day, when I think about segregation... I think of that smell," Kirk said.

However, since the World War II, the simmering of change had been in the air. Returning veterans, like Sam Tasby of Dallas, having helped free Europe, wanted more from their home country and their state.

“I thought since I went to war and fought, the black people would be received different, but it didn't make a difference,” Tasby said.

What they found instead was mounting resistance to the integration of public schools. On the day John F. Kennedy took office, Dallas was the largest southern city with segregated schools. There had been no organized resistance, in part due to efforts by the leading figures in the city.

“The white leadership of this city had seen riots in other cities and what devastation they did to those cities... and the business leadership of this city was determined that that would not happen here,” Tasby said.

They went so far as to produce a 30-minute film titledDallas at the Crossroads,” that featured only whites and urged calm.

No violence occurred, but there was no desegregation, either.

However, many blacks, like Sam Tasby, thought Kennedy might be different.

“He said he wanted to be president of all the people. I like that kind of statement,” Tasby said.

Rev. Zan Holmes said that was not a universally held view among blacks.

“When [Kennedy] was a senator, I know that Martin Luther King, Jr. himself said that he was not impressed,” Holmes said.

When King was arrested in Georgia and sentenced to four months hard labor by a federal judge, the Kennedy staff called the judge in the case. Dr. King was released, and most blacks gave Kennedy the credit and their vote -- even Martin Luther King, Sr.

“Dr. King’s father was a Republican, and he was going to vote for Nixon," said "He changed his mind.”

With demonstrations and freedom marches continuing and resistance to them becoming more violent, President Kennedy was forced to see what the world was seeing: a rift between what the country promised, and what it lived.

So, in June 1963, after the Governor of Alabama tried to bar integration of the University of Alabama, Kennedy pushed for support of Civil Rights in a White House speech.

“Today, we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free," the president said. "And when Americans are sent to Vietnam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only."

By the time Kennedy arrived in November 1963, Dallas had acquired a reputation as home to some of the administration’s most vocal opponents. A month before, they disrupted a speech by UN Ambassador Adlai Stephenson and the day before he arrived, a columnist warned if he mentioned Vietnam or taxes or civil rights, “there will sure as shootin' be some who heave to and let go with a broadside of grapeshot in the presidential rigging."

The morning of the motorcade, no one has forgotten.

”I saw him that day," Sam Tasby said. “I waved at him... I don’t know whether he saw me or not.”

Rev. Zan Holmes was at the Trade Mart at the luncheon at which the president was scheduled to speak.

Ron Kirk recalled, “I was in the 4th or 5th grade and I was in class,” when word of the shooting came in, “and more than anything, I just remember the horror and the pain on our teachers."

Sam Tasby, remembered switching buses as he headed to work when “a guy walked up to me and said, 'Have you heard? They shot Kennedy.'”

No one alive at the time has forgotten where they were, especially those like Rev. Zan Holmes at the Trade Mart.

“I remember Luther Holcomb, who was then the executive director of the Greater Dallas Community of Churches, went up and he prayed…" he said. "I mean, we were just devastated and I remember seeing all the food -- I had never seen so much food left on the table as I saw on that occasion. We could not eat. We did not need physical food, what we needed on the occasion was spiritual food. We had come to the end of our own strength.”

Since then, we have all seen change. Hispanics now make a strong voting bloc in the city, making Dallas now tri-ethnic.

About three decades after the assassination, Ron Kirk became Dallas’ first African-American mayor. Without Jim Crow, he believes it might have come sooner.

"In my mind, I’m the fifth first black mayor of Dallas," Kirk said, "because people don’t realize [former Mayor of Los Angeles] Tom Bradley, [former Mayor of Atlanta] Maynard Jackson, [former Mayor of San Francisco] Willie Brown, and [former Mayor of Kansas City] Emmanuel Cleaver, all were either born in or within 30 miles of Dallas."

After 60 years in the same house, Sam Tasby’s neighbors have changed; hospitals and highways have replaced pastures and streams. This week, he’ll be honored at Sam Tasby Middle School.

It is a remarkable distance in 50 years, with, the Rev. Zan Holmes argues, some way to go.

“I know that we have made progress, but listen," he said, "we still have the north-side divide. Racism is still alive... We are still on that journey.”

E-mail jmccaa@wfaa.com

 

Print
Email
|