Peep-hole power

It's a scary world out there, but someone's gotta keep it under control. Jim Schutze uncovers the secret agony of the Dallas Citizens Council.

Trying to figure out who was really who at City Hall in the Klan era was always a puzzle. That was part of the great fun of secret power: putting on public faces and secret costumes. The original Citizens Association, a precursor of today's Dallas Citizens Council, publicly fought the Klan in the 1920s, asking in speeches "whether the people want a Ku Klux Klan administration or a government by and for all the people." But as it turned out, the Citizens Association itself was endorsing a slate of candidates who were Klan members.

Who's on first? What's the game?
The Dallas Citizens Council and its political wing, the Citizens Charter Association, known as the CCA, were formed in 1937 by R.L. Thornton and the other two big bankers in town, with an avowed purpose of marshaling support for major civic improvement projects. Through the CCA, the Citizens Council was virtually able to control the Dallas City Council for almost a quarter-century.

The Citizens Council has always vigorously denied any connection at all to the Klan or to the "White Citizens Councils" that sprang up in segregated states in the 1950s in response to the black liberation movement. Certainly there is no organizational link.

There is some lingering question of the original sympathies of the Citizens Council--not today, but early on. A former Dallas mayor, Wallace Savage, once told me that in the 1950s the Citizens Council hired an executive director from the national staff of the Ku Klux Klan in Atlanta and that the new executive tried to pressure Savage to back off from positions the Citizens Council deemed too friendly to black people. But certainly the sheer force of the times since then has obligated the council to grow both politically and spiritually. History counts for something, even in Oz.

The larger point is that whenever something went boom and the Citizens Council did appear briefly from behind its curtain--in the early '60s after the Kennedy assassination, in the late 1960s when the civil rights movement finally got to town, in the 1970s when even the white people decided they wanted to try electing their own mayor--it was always there looking sheepish in the same guise and posture, with the charred hair and the grin, on the wrong side of all the big issues, muttering through gritted teeth for someone to fix the curtain.

There was always something the Citizens Council seemed not quite to understand about its basic position in these situations. After the assassination, for example, members of the Citizens Council pointed out defensively that they had been trying to put on a very nice luncheon for the president at the Trade Mart when it had happened. But what the out-of-town reporters, writers, and historians were focusing on was the fundamental role of the Citizens Council as an artifact of tight oligarchic control, choking down dissent and helping foster a climate in which extremism had flourished.

Today there are two legitimate questions to ask about the Citizens Council and its role in the affairs of the city. The first is what links may still bind the council of today to its original roots as a secretive, socially reactionary, exclusive, all-white, all-male bastion founded by a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan?

That answer is probably some. But probably not enough to talk about. It's mostly just that old-white-guy thing. They've done a lot to integrate their own numbers, both racially and by gender. If they still have some aging troglodytes in the ranks, so what? Every flu season, it will get better.

The second question is more interesting. Forget where they stand or think they stand on the big public issues. Forget about it. What about the age-old central question: Do they still think it's OK to be a semi-secret Moose-Lodge-type organization and at the same time get involved very aggressively in community politics? And, if they do see their role that way, is it a problem for the rest of us as a community?

The answer to that one is yes. Big-time. Both. The role and the problem.

For this story, Donna Halstead, the executive director of the Citizens Council, refused to talk to me. Halstead, a former Dallas city council member, was thoughtful enough to have an intermediary call and sort of politely ask me to stop trying to get her to talk to me, on the grounds that Halstead is only a hired hand, trying to do a job, and that any story I would write about the Citizens Council they will probably hate, and that "she just can't afford to be involved in controversy."

I did call David Biegler, president of Texas Utilities and a member of the board of Chase Dallas Bank, who is chairman of the Citizens Council, and Biegler did try to return my call two times. I missed him both times, which is my fault. I called him back a bunch, but I'm sure he is far busier than I, and two call-backs are probably more than I deserve.

What I was trying to get from him, of course, was his no-comment. I have seen it elsewhere, and it's a very nice one, with even a faint hint of wit about it, and I would have loved to have my own version.

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