Author Interviews
4:41 pm
Wed October 9, 2013

In 'Dallas 1963,' A City Of Rage, Seized By 'Civic Hysteria'

Originally published on Wed October 9, 2013 6:16 pm

Nearly half a century later, the date remains difficult for many to forget: Nov. 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In grainy photographs and countless conspiracy theories, the day endures in our collective memory. What often gets submerged in these images and reports, though, is the story of the place that hosted Kennedy on that day, the city that saw his death firsthand: Dallas.

Here's where Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis step in. In a new history, Dallas 1963, they explore the city in the years leading up to the assassination — and they describe an angry place, a stew of superpatriotism fueled by anti-Communist paranoia, fierce racism and anti-Semitism.

Minutaglio speaks with NPR's Melissa Block about the "civic hysteria" that kept Dallas churning until Kennedy's death and the infamy that continues to dog it decades later.


Interview Highlights

On the motivations and the makeup of the anti-Kennedy movement in early '60s Dallas

It was an amazing confederacy. People were lured to Dallas, they were marching to Dallas. There was just this rising sense of anger and distrust toward Kennedy, toward perceived socialism, religion. People feared him as a Catholic.

I found that Dallas became really one of the most singular cities on planet Earth. For some reason out in the heartland in the middle of Texas, really powerful people coalesced around this notion that Kennedy was a traitor and in fact was guilty of treason. And these weren't just folks who were idly thinking these thoughts; they were acting on them and forming organizations and movements to essentially overthrow Kennedy ...

These were the city fathers from every perspective, the leading preachers in town, the leading businessmen, the leading elected officials — the people who held the microphones, in a sense, on broadcast and in print media. So, it was folks who lived above the cloud line, who really were the citizen-kings of the city.

On how desegregation lent the city a sense of unrest

Dallas remained the largest American city to yet integrate its public schools. And what welled up in the story was the sense of unease and distrust, and yet some really heroic elements. There are figures in our book who really worked against these powerful citizen-kings. [They] were brave enough to invite Martin Luther King to the city.

Emblematic of the sense of hatred and distrust in the city, there was a bomb threat lodged against King, who came to speak in Dallas just a few months before Kennedy got there.

On the Mink Coat Mob Riot, a notorious confrontation between Lyndon Baines Johnson and a group of Dallas protesters four days before the 1960 presidential election

It was an amazing scene and one that's been exiled to the corners of history. It's really something we need to be mindful of. LBJ and Ladybird Johnson were attacked by a mob of Dallas' leading citizens during a campaign stop in downtown Dallas. In the lobbies of the two finest hotels in Dallas, it was a melee: people swinging signs at them, they were spitting at them, people were pulling hat pins out of their hats and trying to stab people. It became known as the Mink Coat Mob Riot ...

Some historians say that folks then voted for LBJ and Kennedy in sympathy and that put them both in the White House. The very thing that people in Dallas, some people in Dallas in this Mink Coat Mob — the finest citizens in the city — did not want to have happen.

On the nature of the Mink Coat Mob

It's those scary moments when you see a face coiled in rage. You see behind [LBJ] these faces twisted in anger and hate. Then, again, almost the unlikely nature [of the mob]: You look at the full frame and these are people who are dressed literally in mink coats, suits, ties, people taking a break for lunch during their business endeavors. It really looks like society unhinged. Something's gone horribly, horribly awry in Dallas.

On Dallas, still seething three years later

Dallas had just simply become, in an almost initially unlikely way, the headquarters of the anti-Kennedy, 'Let's overthrow Kennedy' movement. He was perceived to be a traitor. He was a socialist, he was on bended knee to so many different entities — communism, socialism and even the pope.

Dallas happened to have among the largest Baptist congregations in America. It had a really powerful preacher there that felt that if Kennedy was elected president, then the pope would essentially be running things in the United States, and he preached that.

On whether Kennedy sensed danger in his visit to Dallas in November 1963

JFK and his advisers were very concerned. They were doing very good reconnaissance. They knew that, as an example, going into Dallas, they were going to be on the home turf of the local newspaper publisher — a man named Ted Dealey — of the Dallas Morning News, who a few years earlier had flown to the White House to directly confront President Kennedy ... essentially jabbing his finger in the chest of the president and telling him, 'You're just like a little girl, you're just like your daughter Carolyn riding a tricycle. You're weak-willed.'

Kennedy told Jacqueline en route to Dallas — he said, 'Be prepared, we're headed into nut country.' It was almost his jocular way of saying, be wary, be careful, be mindful of the fact that we've been warned about Dallas. It is the bastion of resistance to us, what we stand for in America.

On Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy's alleged assassin, and his relationship to Dallas

Oswald was living in this hothouse environment, this overheated, increasingly vitriolic environment. Most people who have studied Oswald have suggested he was somewhat of a malleable figure and an impressionable figure, and someone who wanted to make a statement. He wanted to be taken seriously in some way.

I believe now, as we look at him, that he had to be shaped by his environment, had to be shaped by this almost civic hysteria in Dallas. It was just perfect for someone like Lee Harvey Oswald to well up and become, as he perceived himself, an agent of change.

On coping with the infamy of being the city in which Kennedy was assassinated

The assassination is in the marrow, it's in the DNA of the city. It's never gone away. It's also a little bit like smoke; it's hard to wrap your hands around it. It's just, it's there with you. As people traveled from Dallas in the weeks and months and even years after the assassination, many of them were vilified. Many people took to lying and saying — when asked, 'Where are you from?' — they'd say, 'We're from Houston,' or another state.

A few years ago, I was traveling in Moscow and working on some journalism, and I met some people there. I just met them on an elevator, and we had a conversation. And I said, "I'm from Dallas, Texas." The people on the elevator with me raised their fingers up in the form of a gun, index finger and thumb pointed out, and then fired that — you know, mock-firing a gun. And they said, "Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy." And that was many, many years after it happened, far across the globe, far away from Dallas. I think it still haunts the city in some way.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, a new book dives deep into the city where the murder took place. "Dallas, 1963" explores the swirling forces of right wing fanaticism at work in the city during the three years leading up to JFK's assassination. By this account, Dallas in the early '60s was a stew of super-patriotism, fueled by anti-communist paranoia, fierce racism and anti-Semitism.

Longtime Texas journalist Minutaglio wrote the book with Steven L. Davis, and he joins me now. Welcome to the program, Bill.

BILL MINUTAGLIO: It's great to be here.

BLOCK: I want to ask you about your description of Dallas in the early '60s. You call it the most promising right-wing citadel in America, it's a city of hate. So describe the fury and the strength of the far right-wing and what drove them at the time.

MINUTAGLIO: It was an amazing confederacy. People were lured to Dallas, they were marching to Dallas. There was just this rising sense of anger and distrust toward Kennedy, toward perceived socialism, religion. People feared him as a Catholic. And I found that Dallas became really one of the most singular cities on planet Earth.

Really powerful people coalesced around this notion that Kennedy was a traitor and, in fact, was guilty of treason. And these weren't just folks who, you know, were idly thinking these thoughts. They were acting on them and forming organizations and movements to essentially overthrow Kennedy.

BLOCK: And these are not people outside the mainstream. These were many of the rich and powerful characters in Dallas who were behind this movement, right?

MINUTAGLIO: These were the city fathers from every perspective. The leading preachers in town, the leading businessmen, the leading elected officials; the people who held the microphones, in a sense, on broadcasts and in print media. So it was folks who lived above the cloud line, who really were the citizen-kings of the city.

BLOCK: One of the other themes that runs through the book is that a lot what's fueling this right wing anger is deep and ardent segregationism.

MINUTAGLIO: The back-story of Dallas was the fact that Dallas remained the largest American city to yet integrate its public schools. And what welled up in the story was this unbelievable sense of unease and distrust, and yet, some really heroic elements. There are figures in our book who really worked against these powerful citizen-kings, were brave enough to invite Martin Luther King to the city. Emblematic of the sense of hatred and distrust in the city, there was a bomb threat lodged against King, who came to speaking in Dallas just a few months before Kennedy got there.

BLOCK: Well, all of this anger does turn on John Kennedy in the 1960 presidential campaign. Into this climate comes JFK's running mate, Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson in November of 1960. It's four days before the election and he's brought his wife Ladybird. So they come to Dallas and, Bill Minutaglio, why don't you talk about what happens to them when they get there?

MINUTAGLIO: It was an amazing scene and one that's been exiled to the corners of history. It's really something we need to be mindful of. LBJ and Ladybird Johnson were attacked by a mob of Dallas' leading citizens during a campaign stop in downtown Dallas. And then in the lobbies of the two finest hotels in Dallas, they were attacked with signs, people swinging signs at them. They were spitting at them. People were pulling hat pins out of their hats and trying to stab people.

It became known as the Mink Coat Mob Riot, that LBJ - a master of political theater - realized in the middle of this melee that the cameras are rolling, then he nobly said, you know, I'm going to push through the crowd - knowing full well that it was going to look really good on TV later that night.

And some historians say that folks then voted for LBJ and Kennedy in sympathy and that put them both in the White House, the very thing that people in Dallas, some people in Dallas in this Mink Coat Mob - the finest citizens in the city - did not want to have happen.

BLOCK: When you look at images of this Mink Coat Mob, as you describe it, surrounding LBJ and Ladybird, what did it look like? What does this crowd look like?

MINUTAGLIO: It's those scary moments when you see a face coiled in rage. And you see in the background behind them, these faces twisted in anger and hate. And then again, almost the unlikely nature. You look at the full frame and these are people who are dressed literally in mink coats and suits, ties. They're people taking a break, you know, for lunch during their business endeavors. And it really looks like society unhinged - just something has gone horribly, horribly awry in Dallas.

BLOCK: Well, all of this is still seething in Dallas by November 22nd, 1963, when JFK arrives in Dallas. And the cover of your book shows a flyer that had been printed up, that was plastered all over Dallas - 5,000 of them. It looks like a wanted poster. And there are photos of JFK. It says: Wanted for Treason.

MINUTAGLIO: It's so emblematic of the outrage that people felt towards Kennedy in Dallas, emanating from Dallas. Dallas had just simply become, in an almost initially unlikely way, the headquarters of the anti-Kennedy, let's overthrow Kennedy movement. He was perceived to be a traitor. That he was a socialist, he was on bended knee to so many different entities - socialism, communism, and even the pope.

Dallas happened to have among the largest Baptist congregations in America. It had a really, really powerful preacher there felt that if Kennedy was elected president, then the pope would essentially be running things in the United States and he preached that. This was an extremely influential preacher in the city.

BLOCK: How fearful was JFK and the people around him about this visit to Dallas in November '63?

MINUTAGLIO: JFK and his advisors were very concerned. They were doing very good reconnaissance. They knew that, as an example, going into Dallas, they were going to be on the home turf of the local newspaper publisher, a man named Ted Dealey, of the Dallas Morning News, who a few years earlier had flown to the White House to directly confront President Kennedy on his home turf, essentially jabbing his finger in the chest of the president and telling him, you're just like a, quote, "little girl," you're just like your daughter Carolyn riding a tricycle. You're weak-willed.

Kennedy told Jacqueline en route to Dallas, he said, you know, be prepared, we're headed into nut country. It was almost his jocular way of saying, be wary, be careful, be mindful of the fact that we've been warned about Dallas. That it is the bastion of resistance to us, what we stand for in America.

BLOCK: Bill, what do you make of the fact that in the end, JFK is assassinated in Dallas, not at the hands of a right wing extremist, which is what they were fearing, but a self-described Marxist who had defected to the Soviet Union before coming to Texas, Lee Harvey Oswald.

MINUTAGLIO: Oswald was living in this hothouse environment, this overheated, increasingly vitriolic environment. Most people who have studied Oswald have suggested that he was somewhat of a malleable figure and an impressionable figure, and someone who wanted to make a statement. I believe now that as we look at him, that he had to be shaped by this almost civic hysteria in Dallas. And it was just perfect for someone like Lee Harvey Oswald to well up and become, as he perceived himself, an agent of change.

BLOCK: After JFK is assassinated in Dallas in 1963, how did the city deal with the shame that came from that, that this was where the president was shot?

MINUTAGLIO: The assassination is in the marrow, it's in the DNA of the city. It's never gone away. It's also a little bit like smoke; it's hard to wrap your hands around. It's just, it's there with you. And as people traveled from Dallas in the weeks and months and even years after the assassination, many of them were vilified. Many people took to lying and saying, when asked, you know, where are you from, they'd say, we're from Houston, or another state.

You know, a few years ago, I was traveling in Moscow and met some people there. I just met them on an elevator and we had a conversation. And I said, I'm from Dallas, Texas. The people on the elevator with me raised their fingers up in the form of a gun, their index finger and thumb pointed out, and then fired that, you know, mock-firing a gun.

And they said, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy. And that was many, many years after it happened, you know, far across the globe, far away from Dallas. So I think it still haunts the city in some way.

BLOCK: That's Bill Minutaglio, he's co-author along with Steven L. Davis of the book, "Dallas, 1963." Bill, thanks so much.

MINUTAGLIO: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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