Tussle in Texas
The Nation, 3 February 1964, pp. 114–117
Saul Friedman is on the staff of the Houston Chronicle.
Late last October, Southern Methodist University in Dallas published The Decision-Makers, a penetrating, sociological study of the close-knit power structure that for years has ruled Dallas in its image. “The city,” wrote author Carol Estes Thometz, “would suffer if such power were concentrated in the hands of men who would use it unwisely.” At least one member of the Dallas power structure, Stanley Marcus, president of the Neiman-Marcus store, now believes that wisdom was lacking. For on November 22, and in the days since, the city suffered.
Yet little has changed in Dallas. If anything, the murder of President Kennedy has strengthened the decision makers—the men who built their city into a bastion of rigid conservatism, and who have tolerated, when they did not actively support, the rabid Right as a means of frightening moderate and liberal dissenters into silence.
The Dallas Morning News, spokesman for the power structure and the hard Right, says that J. Erik Jonsson, who has been at the top of Miss Thometz’s power pyramid, has agreed to become mayor should the incumbent Earle Cabell resign to run against ultra-conservative Rep. Bruce Alger. And Robert Morris, long a right-wing leader, enjoys strong Dallas support in his race for the Republican senatorial nomination against a moderate conservative, George Bush of Houston.
Dallas, the home of billionaire H. L. Hunt and former General Edwin Walker, continues to be a mecca for speakers like the Reverend Billy James Hargis, John Birch Society leader John Rousselot, and former Major Arch Roberts, the one-time aide to Walker and author of his “pro-Blue” troop indoctrination course. Roberts, in town to pay his respects to his former chief, and to speak before the Minute Women and Hunt-supported Pro-America, charged that traitors (he included Dean Acheson and Philip Jessup) had created the United Nations, that it was now Communist-dominated and that American soldiers are being brainwashed by civilian meddlers to prepare them to fight under a UN Soviet commander.
Hunt’s “Life-Lines” is still on the air, and Birch Society meetings grow larger.
In Dallas and elsewhere in Texas, the extreme Right seems to be
regrouping along the line recently promulgated in advertisements and
intra-organization bulletins by the Birch Society. It goes like this: There is
no reason for Dallas, or Texas, or conservatives, or the nation to do any
post-assassination soul searching. President Kennedy was not their victim—he
was killed by the international Communist conspiracy.
A letter received by the Houston Chronicle from a woman reader vividly sums up the point of view:
of hatred has not always been considered so terrible. Even Christ showed anger
Now I do not presume to compare the attitude of the people of Dallas with Christ, but I simply wish to remind those individuals who have so vociferously criticized Dallas that sometimes justified hate can be of some good.…Dallas should not be criticized for its hatred for anti-Americanism.
The blame for the assassination should not be placed upon Dallas but where it actually belongs—on the Communist conspiracy, as aided and abetted by the Supreme Court, which ever since that tragic day in Dallas, has steadfastly refused to enact laws to clamp down on Communist sympathizers in this country, and upon the shoulders of the U.S. Attorney General, who instead of rounding up these known Communists, was so busy watching the “horrible right wing” that the President was murdered by a Communist.
Until recently I did not understand why the Birchers were so adamant about impeaching Earl Warren, but in the light of events since the assassination, I am beginning to see the light. Yes, there is a deep, burning hatred in Dallas, and I pray to God that it may continue and spread throughout the entire nation until the Communist malignancy which is threatening all of our lives is completely destroyed.
This was one of a number of letters, playing variations on the same
theme, that were received by Texas newspapers following statements made on the
assassination by Birch Society founder, Robert Welch.
In Dallas and Houston, some Protestant ministers have told their congregations that the slaying of the President, though lamentable, was an act of God—that Kennedy was struck down because he was a Catholic President.
It should be said here that Houston does not take second place in
right-wing activity to Dallas; it never has. Robert Welch has singled Houston
out as a Birch Society “stronghold” second only perhaps to Los Angeles.
In the week following the assassination, one of Houston’s top attorneys was lunching with one of the wealthiest and most influential men in South Texas at a Houston businessman’s club. “I don’t hold with murder,” said the wealthy man. “But I can’t say I’m not glad to see us rid of that bushy-haired bastard from Boston.”
Houston, however, is politically more mobile than Dallas; the liberal or moderate can find room to move, a place to speak and people to listen. In Houston there is a large, largely Democratic, working force and an active trade-union movement. There are also more Negroes in Houston and they have an influence on city politics. Finally, Houston is not governed by an organized oligarchy.
But although Houston has been able to absorb and digest the activity of the rabid Right, the stream of speakers coming into the city gives good indication that the right wing in Texas is not about to roll over and play dead. On a rainy night less than a month after the assassination, a crowd of 700 turned out at a Birch Society meeting to hear Westbrook Pegler. The aging columnist decided not to use his prepared speech, which castigated the Kennedy administration, and the chairman reflected the crowd’s disappointment at this show of respect. “I guess he [Pegler] wants the body to get cold. As for me and the rest of the people here, I would just as soon listen to what he was going to say.”
Major Roberts and Robert Morris have recently appeared in Houston, and Admiral Ben Moreel and Sen. Strom Thurmond are on the schedule.
A series of films from the right-wing propaganda factory at Harding College in Arkansas is being shown at Houston civic clubs and has been offered to the schools, and the local Birch Society held an overwhelmingly successful two-day conclave in mid-January to set their post-Kennedy strategy. In a Houston mayoralty election held about a week after the assassination, the candidate backed by the extreme Right won over a man who had been a Kennedy campaigner in 1960.
There are some oases in this right-wing desert, although the hunt for water by Houston liberals leads them to cheer some spurious victories. In a recent Republican County chairman’s race, for instance, a “moderate” beat a member of the far Right. The “moderate” was an avid supporter of Goldwater, but in the Texas context he is entitled to his label because he does not associate with the absolutist, quasi-racist, rabid Right.
And the breach between the conservative Democrats and liberals has been healed by the overtures President Johnson has made to liberal standard-bearer Senator Ralph Yarborough. The truce is apt to hold at least until November, and there is a chance that Harris County will go Democratic for the first time since 1948.
In Dallas, however, there is little prospect that the ultra-conservative
hold over both parties will be broken. If Senator Goldwater is not nominated,
the far Right may be thrown into confusion and Dallas County may go for Johnson,
but the rightist grip on the city will not be broken.
It will not be broken because for too long—since the heyday of McCarthy—the city’s mass media have given the rightists a respectable platform from which to crusade against the liberalist-Socialist-Communist-atheist infidel. Before Dallas had the blood of a President on its hands, its mouth was filled with spittle for then Senator Johnson and his wife, and later for Adlai Stevenson.
Strong elements in Dallas view the federal government as some alien power. After years of openly evading the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate the schools, aged Federal Judge T. Whitefield Davidson helped fan the flames of anti-federal hatred by telling Negro attorneys that he was ordering desegregation because the government was “forcing it on the community without its consent.” Speaking in his courtroom, Davidson called the desegregation order a “Negro victory” and likened the position of Dallas whites to Lee at Appomattox.
Dallas has spawned the National Indignation Convention, which cheered when Birch leader Tom Anderson told them that World War II was the wrong war, fought against the wrong enemy. Dallas is the place where the Ku Klux Klan was revived in Texas. It is also the home of the Texas Aryans, and the city that stood by while a high school boy was pilloried with anti-Semitic abuse because he wrote, for his school paper, a favorable review of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Dallas is also a cultivated city, the city of the Margo James theatre, a city that has a fine symphony orchestra and art museums. But its art circles were helpless against the determination of the Dallas Public Affairs Luncheon Club to keep works by Picasso and Jo Davidson out of the museum. And the music lovers obligingly called off the scheduled recital by a touring Russian string quartet.
In her study of Dallas, Miss Thometz points out that such things could
not have happened without at least the tacit consent of the power structure she
traces. Although the political parties, and the quasi-political crusading
organizations have power, “Dallas is a city characterized by men of power
rather than by organizations of power,” wrote Miss Thometz.
Little in the city gets done unless the organized oligarchy wants it done. This is not to say that various individuals cannot write letters, hold meetings or otherwise speak their piece. But the right wing created the climate of Dallas, and the oligarchy permitted that climate because it seemed to thrive in it.
Therefore if a change is to come about in Dallas’ climate it must be wrought by the power structure. Dallas is probably unique among the large cities of America in that its “establishment” is no ill-defined, amorphous group. but one easily discernible because it is organized into a body which operates openly. It calls itself the Dallas Citizens Council (not to be confused with the racist citizens councils) and includes approximately 230 men who are the chief executives of the largest business and financial institutions in the city.
The Dallas Citizens Council, though largely Republican, is nominally bipartisan. It keeps party politics out of city elections, but makes sure that those elected—Republican or Democrat—are ideologically in its image. This it rarely needs to exert direct influence on the city administration.
The political arm of the Dallas Citizens Council is the City Charter Association, which for years has controlled city politics. Dallas’ long-time mayor, R. L. Thornton, a banker, has been president of the D.C.C. The present mayor, Earle Cabell, went into office over the opposition of the Citizens Charter Association, but his proposals were then beaten down by city council members who were protégés of the Charter Association, and he made peace with the D.C.C.
Today, Dallas’ power structure seems more concerned with the city’s image than with the death of the President, and all the subtle and unsubtle causes for the murder. Dr. E. S. James, editor of the influential Baptist Standard, says: “Right-thinking Texans will always grieve that such a dastardly crime should have been committed in their state.” The Dallas News said: “It cannot be charged with fairness that an entire city is in national disgrace, but certainly its reputation has suffered regrettable damage.” Many citizens want to erect a permanent marker at the spot where the President was shot, but members of the Citizens Council think it might be better to pay for a memorial to be erected in Washington.
Keith Shelton, political editor of the Dallas Times-Herald puts the reaction of the Dallas Citizens Council this way: “It will still tend to agree with the far Right, but the D.C.C. will not let the right-wingers go as far was they have gone in the past. That would blemish Dallas’ fair name. Basically the Dallas Citizens Council is more worried about Dallas’ fair name, and about their own position. They want to maintain the status quo, and if that means cutting down on the right wing for now, they’ll do it.”
By putting a lid, at least temporarily, on the far Right, members of the
power structure are, paradoxically, making themselves stronger. For in the days
before November 22, it was becoming evident that party-conscious young
Republicans, led by Representative Bruce Alger, posed a threat to the hegemony
of the oligarchy. The Dallas Citizens Council, Miss Thometz points out, was
Republican only in national elections. In city, county and state politics they
sought the candidate who best represented and protected their interests. Since
Texas politics are controlled by Democrats, the Dallas power structure remained
Alger, therefore, never became part of the power structure, although he was helped by the oligarchy in past elections. He began to lose his D.C.C. support when he led the mob that attacked Johnson in the 1960 campaign, when he said Dallas didn’t need any federal money, and when ridding Dallas of Alger seemed a good way of ridding the city of its assassination guilt. The D.C.C. has now designated Mayor Earle Cabell as the man to beat him.
The power structure intends to maintain its authority. With the announcement that Cabell may resign to run for Congress, the D.C.C. has announced that J. Erik Jonsson “has consented to become mayor.” Jonsson, a Republican, is former president of the D.C.C., and chairman of the committee for the luncheon to which Kennedy was going when he was shot.
There is some hope, though, for a break in the almost totalitarian
control of the city’s political climate. The Democratic Party, which was
opposed to Kennedy, now seems able to rally support around Johnson because he is
more palatable to conservative Democrats and because the assassination has put
some fight into Democrats who have stayed away from precinct meetings rather
than oppose the tories.
Just after the assassination, a new organization, the North Dallas Democrats, came into being. It is committed to a conservative-liberal coalition and pledges its support for the national Democratic ticket. This may not seem unusual, but it is the first open Democratic organization that has dared to put itself on record in support of the party leader since 1948. Only eighty-seven attended its first meeting, but at last count there were 700 members.
The resurgence of a Democratic Party ideologically in tune with the national party, is a sign of hope in Dallas, and so is the exhortation by D.C.C. member Stanley Marcus that Dallas be made safe for diversity.
But it remains to be seen whether real diversity, or the North Dallas Democrats, will have a meaningful role in the future operation of the city. And it remains to be seen whether the power structure will give up any of its sovereignty to representatives of the 130,000 Negroes in Dallas, or the Dallas A.F.L.-C.I.O.
If the Dallas Citizens Council continues to deny the legitimate liberal-moderate groups their right to take an active and effective role in the dialogue of Dallas, those groups can operate only on the fringes of the city’s political life. And there they must suffer from malnutrition. Because that has happened in the past, the right wing established itself as the voice of Dallas. If the voice of liberalism and moderation is again stifled, the dialogue will again become a monologue—in the harsh, irresponsible voice of the far Right.
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