Beginning Now, A City's Timeworn Heart on Trial in the Case of John Wiley Price
John Wiley Price's trial starts this week.
Illustration by Shenho Hshieh
In the federal corruption trial of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, which opens Tuesday for jury selection, lawyers will grind on for months through millions of pages of evidence gathered since federal agents raided Price’s home and office six years ago. But for me sitting in the gallery, it will all be about one thing — the city’s old and careworn heart.
In 1978 when I came here from Detroit, a black city, Dallas was head-snappingly backward about race. My first or second night in town I attended a big downtown event in a ballroom. Free drinks, I guess. The crowd was entirely white, except for the wait staff, who were all young African-American men in spotless tight-fitting tuxes, expertly balancing drink trays on fingertips.
Some old dude found out where I was from. I was young and had a big beard and long hair. He told me I must have thought I died and went to heaven when I got to move to Dallas. Maybe I balked or didn’t agree enthusiastically enough. I don’t remember. He launched into a loud, boisterous, drink-fueled speech about how “our niggers in Dallas are much happier here than your niggers up in Detroit.”
A young black man with a tray was standing two feet away waiting for us to take a drink. I looked over at him. His eyes drilled through me like spears of ice. His look said, “I do not exist in your universe, you do not exist in my universe, and let’s keep it that way, hippie dude.”
For a decade after that, the voice of John Wiley Price was an incessant war drum calling black people in Dallas out of that icy self-protective trance. Even before he won election to the county commission in 1985, he taught black Dallas how to challenge white arrogance by putting his own body on the line. He called himself and his followers warriors, and they were.
But Dallas was anomalous for reasons. That time warp in race relations — at least 20 years behind by some estimates — didn’t happen out of the blue. It had taken two to do that tango, black and white.
Dallas black leadership, mainly clergy, largely turned their backs on Martin Luther King Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. By calling the black community to action in the ’80s, Price was directly challenging and often angering the old clerocracy of southern Dallas. Eventually Price won that battle.
People who have worked with or gotten to know Price tend to agree he is a man of fiendishly high I.Q., but he is also a man of limited formal education — a diploma from a hick town high school and maybe a semester or two of junior college. He has always been personally limited by that lack of formal education.
His community was limited as well, because it stayed on the bench during the national movement for years. When they did finally rise to action, Price and his followers had to operate alone on the field of history, without the support, logistical and philosophical, of a vast national movement.
Nowhere did those limitations show more tellingly than in Price’s concept of economic opportunity and development, which he tended to view mainly as a matter of choosing sides and making alliances with rich white people. I wish I could remember the name of that old guy who used the n-word in front of the black waiter that night, because I wonder if he became one of Price’s allies later.
Price and I knew each other and talked a lot over a quarter century before our falling out. We liked each other. I liked him, anyway. Still do. Last week I found myself listening to a phone conversation he and I had in 2009, shortly before we stopped being able to speak to each other. Rather than characterize it for you — which would involve the awkward task of characterizing myself — I’m just going to give you a transcript.
Price had phoned me as a courtesy. He was telling me personally beforehand that he was going to send a letter to the editor of the Dallas Observer slamming me, calling me a “carpetbagger from Detroit” and taking me to task for criticizing the Perot family and their interest in Alliance Airport in Fort Worth. I had accused Price of working to sabotage a competing project in his own district, Richard Allen’s “Inland Port.” Some or all of this matter may come up in the course of this trial about to begin.
I considered it gentlemanly of Price to forewarn me — and, by the way, he is always a gentleman in personal dealings — but I argued with him about the deal itself. I just did not understand how a guy who had devoted his entire life and career to economic opportunity for his community could sabotage something that would have been the biggest job-creator in the entire history of southern Dallas.
He repeated a line he had already sent to Allen in a letter, that during slavery everybody had a job, meaning the 65,000 new jobs offered by Allen’s project were worthless, an insult. The only thing Price wanted from Allen was what he called “equity,” meaning partial ownership in Allen’s company to be delivered to a small group of Price allies in exchange for political protection.
Here is our chat. I apologize in advance for my language.
PRICE: I’m not going to back up in my position. During slavery everybody had a job.
SCHUTZE: I still disagree with you about that. I still say nobody had a job. Nobody had a job.
PRICE: They did have a job. What was it called then?
SCHUTZE: It’s called fucking slavery. They stole their lives.
PRICE: Slavery, Jim, that’s an institution, and the purpose of the institution was working, and working traditionally is a job.
SCHUTZE: I say a job has in it the concept of freedom. You can leave a job. You can say, “Take this job and shove it.”
PRICE: Then OK. And then do what? Then get to the next job?
SCHUTZE: Yeah. But that’s different from slavery, where they kill you if you try to walk.
PRICE: It all comes down to slavery. The nickname that most African-Americans call their job, they call it slavery.
SCHUTZE: Well, why?
PRICE: I just told you. [Garbled.] The effort of human capitalism in this country is to be [garbled] enough to have ownership. You don’t own a job. It belongs to other people. They take it away when they get ready.
SCHUTZE: But you own yourself in your job. You own the right to walk off the job.
PRICE: Not when you [garbled]. And walk on to another one?
PRICE: They don’t belong to you. That’s our concept. Jobs don’t belong to you.
SCHUTZE: OK, I hear that from like rich white guys. I understand that. But what about the concept of just honorable work? Just working, being a working man? That’s not slavery.
PRICE: It is. (Laughs.) Jim, you know if you push that concept off to anyone in terms of just … just working, they don’t buy it. The ultimate is to ... do you think Richard Allen has a job?
SCHUTZE: No. He owns the company. But this is where I go back to my carpetbagger roots that I’m very proud of. I was a factory worker. I worked with these guys who were African-American and came up from Mississippi, worked in the plants …
PRICE: Um hmm (mocking).
SCHUTZE: … sent their kids to college, bought a brick house and a new car, had their retirement. Well, shit, that’s a fucking job.
PRICE: That’s not the American [garbled] ... believe me ... that’s not the African-American dream. I’m still going back to Jay Z. The dream is to have ownership. That’s why they call those athletes the new slaves. There’s a couple of books out there, I’ll get you copies of them, that talk about the new slaves. I understand it’s hard for you to understand that.
SCHUTZE: I’m a carpetbagger slave I guess.
PRICE: I understand. It’s hard for you to understand that. That’s what we thought. It’s kind of like the deal, if we just make it to the North, we’ll be free.
SCHUTZE: Yeah, particularly to Detroit.
PRICE: Yeah. Jay Z made it to the North and made it to New Jersey, and they told him to fuck off.
SCHUTZE: All right.
His role in the last four decades of Dallas history has made John Wiley Price a feared and revered figure.
Justice for John Wiley Price
None of Price’s view of work as slavery has ever been a secret. Far from it, he has repeated it often on the radio and in speeches. Nor is it a view peculiar to him alone.
In my own exposure to the old traditional black culture of southern Dallas, the history of slavery has always been a taboo fraught with shame and abasement. That sense of profound historical shame continues to influence attitudes toward work, poverty and the origins of wealth.
It lies at the heart of an entire cultural belief system in southern Dallas about economic development and opportunity — a kind of cargo cult in which people will become wealthier if someone installs fancier stores and nicer houses near them, as if wealth emanates from houses and stores, as if wealth comes from white people.
The other side of this coin is the suburbs. Especially the upwardly mobile southern suburbs of Dallas are jam-packed with black families who don’t believe a word of any of that, who know exactly what kind of hard work wealth comes from and who are busily and successfully doing just that. In the meantime the city itself is flooded with young people light-years ahead in all of this.
But this trial will not be about the suburbs or about young people in the city. It will be about the tail end of the time warp and about the city’s oldest hearts, what’s left of them.