“In the name of God, what kind of city have we become?”
A half-century ago, a pastor spoke those words from the pulpit of the United Methodist Church in Dallas. On a weekend when the world stood in shock at what had happened in Texas, Rev. William Holmes dared to condemn the toxic cauldron of political extremism boiling in his city, actively encouraged by some civic leaders and pointedly ignored by others.
“Their silence created a vacuum that was soon filled by a minority, a vocal group of extremists, who vilified and demonized anyone who took a different point of view,” Holmes recalled.
The pastor’s sermon generated death threats.
Next month, Texas will remember one of the darkest days in the state’s history. Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy traveled to Texas for a political trip he hoped would help repair a serious rift between feuding factions of the state’s Democratic Party. But some of the president’s allies in this state profoundly worried about his safety. Indeed, on the day of his death, Kennedy himself warned his wife Jackie they were “headed into nut country.”
Few people today remember that Kennedy’s itinerary included stops in Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Austin. Only one city would go down in history, a city whose fiery political atmosphere raised serious concerns among the president’s supporters, a city where otherwise respectable people openly joked about personally shooting the president: Dallas.
“Dallas, in my estimation, was the most singular city in American during the years prior to the assassination,” said Bill Minutaglio, co-author of “Dallas 1963,” a newly released book detailing the city’s striking political extremism. “You had the world’s richest man, H.L. Hunt, oil billionaire, pouring millions of his own dollars to basically overthrow Kennedy. I don’t think overthrow is too harsh a word.”
Beyond Hunt lay a cast of characters sharing a searing hatred of Kennedy, whom they condemned as everything from anti-American to anti-Christian to a communist.
Among the most strident Kennedy critics in Dallas was Edwin Walker, a former general – he had been relieved of his command for publishing right-wing screeds in an Army newspaper – who helped organize deadly demonstrations against integration at the University of Mississippi. Perhaps the most influential adversary in the city was Ted Dealey, publisher of The Dallas Morning News, who despised Kennedy with such fervor he personally excoriated the president during a White House luncheon.
“They were virulently, virulently anti-Kennedy and anti-LBJ,” Minutaglio said. “They considered LBJ to be a traitor and a Judas.”
Indeed, Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, had been cursed and spat upon by an organized crowd inside the lobby of a Dallas hotel in 1960. Television footage of what later became known as the “mink coat mob” was so disturbing, Richard Nixon later blamed its organizer for costing him the close presidential election.
Just weeks before the assassination, U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson was shouted down and mobbed by another Dallas crowd. One demonstrator even struck him over the head with a protest sign as police escorted him to safety.
“Are these humans or are they animals?” Stevenson asked.
The scene was so unsettling, Stevenson became one of many Kennedy supporters who advised White House officials to avoid Dallas during his upcoming trip to Texas. Even Stanley Marcus, the department store magnate who worked tirelessly to burnish his city’s image, strongly advised against the president’s visit.
On the day of the president’s arrival, one of Walker’s followers distributed leaflets bearing mugshot-style photographs of Kennedy beneath a headline reading, “WANTED FOR TREASON.” The Dallas Morning News published an accusatory advertisement painting the president as a communist sympathizer, a full-page ad surrounded by a black border like an obituary.
“So you have this swirling, accumulating environment,” Minutaglio said. “And here you have Lee Harvey Oswald.”
Oswald, a disaffected Marxist who had once defected to the Soviet Union, had already shown murderous intent. In April 1963, he tried but failed to kill Edwin Walker as he sat inside his Dallas home.
Firing a shot from the same rifle that later killed the president, Oswald barely missed Walker’s head after his bullet glanced off a window sill.
Although Walker might seem like an unlikely target for the ex-marine who later assassinated Kennedy, Oswald had reason to dislike both of them. Walker was one of the leaders of the far right, which Oswald despised. Kennedy had authorized the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, and Oswald had handed out leaflets for a group called the “Fair Play for Cuba Committee.”
Even though the extremism exhibited in Dallas emanated from the right and Oswald was a leftist, Minutaglio believes the threatening rhetoric of Dallas influenced the assassin whose actions stained the city’s name.
“From what I understand about him, he was just desperate to make his mark in history,” Minutaglio said.
To be sure, presidents have been criticized throughout history. The fierce anger displayed in Dallas was not at all unique, but its ferocity glares distinctively in the harsh light of history.
“What set Dallas apart was its size and the lack of any effective opposition,” William Manchester wrote in “The Death of a President,” one of the definitive works on the assassination. “There was no debate, because there was no rebuttal. Dallas was the one American metropolis in which incitement to violence had become respectable.”