Fears and loathing in Oak Cliff

James Fears parked his ancient tow truck, stepped out onto the unfamiliar turf of West Dallas, then adjusted his shades and notched the top button of his white polyester sport coat.

The candidate had arrived.
Looking about him, he summoned a tentative smile and ambled toward the Mattie Nash-Myrtle Davis Recreation Center. A flock of black children played quietly in the distance. James Fears already seemed lost.

This was supposed to be a stop on his no-budget campaign for the vacant District 3 City Council seat. He'd been invited by one of his opponents, West Dallas activist Luis Sepulveda, whom Fears insists on calling "Sal"--"because I can't pronounce that big long name." But instead of getting an opportunity to meet the voting throng last Thursday, he'd wandered into a meeting of the West Dallas Coalition for Environmental Justice.

"I guess this is an environmental thing," Fears said, looking confused. "As far as I'm concerned, owls are on their own. And the little fishes too," he said, wiggling his arm like a trout pushing upstream.

"Me, I'm a human activist. I'm not gonna protect those stray dogs or the salamanders or the worms. I protect humans."

But this is about humans, I offered gently, having come along to observe the candidate. It's about lead poisoning. Soil contamination. Environmental racism.

I searched for signs of recognition on Fears' tanned, jolly face. There were none.

He chuckled again and peered about nervously. He didn't even attempt to mingle with the 25 or so black and Hispanic residents who sat patiently in the gym, waiting for the meeting to get under way.

When an hour had passed and the meeting still hadn't started, Fears wandered back outside. "Gotta get the truck fixed," he said. "Winch is broke."

And off he went, around the corner and south onto Hampton Road, back to where he came from.

Back. Way back.

It must have been about 1973 when his double-vented polyester sport coat hit the clearance rack at Kmart.

But James Fears' politics go back another decade--to 1963. It isn't hard to figure the date: He mentions it ceaselessly, coupled with a commentary on "block-busting" that, in unguarded moments, devolves into an anguished screed on the cleanliness and presumed work habits of African-Americans.

"I've rented houses to them, and they're filthy," he says. "There's some clean blacks--there's lawyers and there's doctors--but the average black guy who works for his wages, you know, he's not as clean as a white person. And the Mexicans are in between, I guess. But that's the way they were brought up, so you really can't blame them.

"Now the blacks were here--born in America--and they can see what a white person's house looks like. It doesn't cost much to be clean."

Fears, at 71, is one angry white guy. "Block-busting," the practice of allowing black families to move into previously all-white neighborhoods--also known as integration--is his event horizon. Evidently it is a deed so heinous that everything else is lined up and measured against it, from the decline of Oak Cliff--"the prettiest, friendliest neighborhood in Dallas"--to the crankiness of city clerks, who he casually assumes are all black.

Yet even in full rant, Fears comes off strangely sweet--generous and hospitable in his way. And he's certain of his own righteous charm.

He talks about his encounters with black city clerks as though he were Captain Kangaroo exhorting little minds to get happy.

"If that person is frowning, the first thing I do is get them to smile," he says. "And then I can get something done. 'Boy, I sure like your dress,'" he says, demonstrating his technique. "In order to get something out of a city employee, you've got to get them in a good mood. They're sooooo downtrodden. It's like, What are you doing here, whitey? I got a job for life.'"

Fears' sweet-and-sour stew of views makes a lasting impression at every public appearance. Like on March 31, when he popped into a meeting of the Kessler Park Neighborhood Association, the closest thing Oak Cliff has to rich folk. "I just think we can make Oak Cliff good again," Fears reportedly told the group of 20 or so homeowners. "All of this started back in 1963 with block-busting."

About a week later, at an orientation meeting for City Council candidates, Fears informed our black city manager and several Hispanic city staffers--among others--that "Spanish people jack up their cars in the street and let the fluids run down the street. That's the way they were brought up, and they haven't been educated."

Fears can't remember exactly what he said at those meetings, but reckons he probably dropped a racial reference or two. And with genial obliviousness, he faults his listeners for taking offense.  

"All I spoke was the truth," he says. "And the truth--if the truth hurts, I feel sorry for people. I'm not gonna put honey on everything I say just to get votes."

No chance of that, it turns out. And he'd soon prove to me, with a surprising flourish, that he doesn't even need your vote.

Which is probably a good thing for everyone.

With a friendly handshake, Fears invited me into his home on Duncanville Road one evening.

We strolled past numerous cars in various states of assembly--Fears said he had nine Mustangs stashed away on his property, and I counted seven non-Mustangs--and stepped inside the plain brick ranch house.

Dressed in brand-X blue jeans and a clean, faded blue T-shirt, Fears offered me a seat at his kitchen counter while his wife, Nancy, quietly peeled potatoes at the sink.

"Well, you might say it's my last stand," Fears said, popping open a Coke for me. "I'm 71, and I've lived here 71 years. I probably won't get elected, but I have a lot to say."

I'd asked James Fears the obvious question: Why are you running for the Dallas City Council?

In Fears' case, the question was particularly relevant. A couple of weeks ago, The Dallas Morning News had reported that one of Fears' opponents for the District 3 seat, former Dallas Observer columnist Laura Miller, had raised $81,418 for her campaign. She has since topped $100,000. At the time of my visit to Fears' home, Luis Sepulveda--"Sal"--had scraped together $500.

Fears had raised nothing.
None of this scared him. Certainly not Miller, or her onslaught of direct-mail flyers, replete with pictures of smiling, photogenic offspring. "She's got a pretty face, and a nice shape, but no qualifications," Fears said.

"She has three small children," he added. "I really believe a mother should stay home with her children until they're in the first grade."

"Sal" provoked milder remarks. "He's a good, conscientious individual," Fears said.

After a while, a shaggy brown dog--Beck, "the best dog in the whole United States"--wandered in the open screen door and plopped down on the living-room carpet, listening as silently as Mrs. Fears while his master launched into a rambling history lesson.

Which, of course, began with block-busting. Allen, Mesquite, Richardson, Cedar Hill, Garland, Plano--Fears reeled off the names of Dallas suburbs built by white flight.

But Fears stayed behind. He was a working man, holding down three jobs at times to support his wife and five children. He worked as an air-safety technician at the Dallas Naval Air Station; fixed up and rented out homes; and scavenged old Mustang parts, which he peddles to rust-ridden yankee states.

"Let the old boy work," he said with a chuckle. "It did good for me. I don't believe in people who's trying to live off somebody else. No one gave me a break."

Living a frugal life--stretching every dollar till it makes two--was the key to his success, Fears said. "I don't need to raise any money," he said of his empty campaign chest. "I got my own. When people give you money, you've got to give them a promise."

We sat there for hours, perched in $4.99 green plastic lawn chairs. Mrs. Fears served dinner: homemade biscuits, fried potatoes, a hamburger patty with cheese.

Fears talked amiably, filling the heavy spring air with his sing-song conversation.

"I used to scold my kids awful--don't say something nasty against blacks," he said. "But I'm a little tired of having to pay for people who do not want to work. Now some of these are healthy bucks, and they don't want to work. A man of 24, living on the dole. Now that gets my blood boiling."

By this time, Mrs. Fears had sat down beside us, where she ate noiselessly.
With a sudden burst of passion, Fears put down his fork and pounded his fist on the blue Formica countertop to the beat of his own angry words: "You don't have to be rich to be clean!"

He wound down by explaining his retro politics. "I used to not be racially prejudiced," he said calmly. "You know, after studying the situation, I did feel they were mistreated. But over the years I have gone back to being prejudiced because the dadgum free gifts they're getting, and I'm still working and paying taxes.

"They're a hand-out society. And I've just gone back the other way. And it's their actions that's causing it."

Afterward, he showed me around his immaculate, sparsely furnished living room, pointing out a portrait of himself painted during the Korean War. "They are very talented, the Orientals," he said.  

He went on to crow about his upcoming trip to Las Vegas, where he and his wife plan to blow their $20 stake on the nickel slots. He was clearly leading up to something big.

"In 1985, I became a millionaire in assets," he said. "And I did it by working with my own hands."

Fears looked at me proudly. He was ready to make his dramatic announcement.
"I'm going to withdraw from the race when I get back," he said. "I know I can't win. I don't need this position. I'm afraid it's gonna make me unhappy."

He said he planned to call a press conference at City Hall sometime within the next several days and invite The Dallas Morning News. With reporters there to record his momentary emergence from oblivion, he'd drop a little bomb. He'd hold aloft a giant check and present it to The Dallas Morning News Charities.

The amount: $81,418--equal to what Laura Miller had raised in her effort to "buy her way into City Hall," as Fears puts it.

He left me with that--his gesture of grandiose kindness--hanging in the damp air right alongside his savage prejudice.

I took home with me my lesson in history.
It was men like this who built this city. And don't you forget it.

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