"City of Hate" or Innocent Bystander: The New York Times Keeps Changing Its Mind on Dallas

The guilt Dallas once felt over the Kennedy assassination has mostly faded. For most Dallasites, the "city of hate" label is an abstraction, useful to riff on for local food blog titles but otherwise bearing no resemblance to the modern city.

That's not to say that it's not worth marveling at how frothy-mouthed Dallas was in 1963. That's the whole point of Dallas, 1963, Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis' book on the subject, and of a Sunday New York Times piece by James McAuley, which Schutze referenced earlier.

The thrust of the Times piece is that Dallas is guilty of "will[ing] the death of the president" and has not yet acknowledged the blood that still covers its hands. This was a place in which a mob of Junior Leaguers spat on Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson and wife of an insurance executive hit Adlai Stevvenson over the head with a picket sign. No surprise, then, that someone might feel compelled to fire a few shots from a school book depository window.

For the last 50 years, a collective culpability has quietly propelled the city to outshine its troubled past without ever actually engaging with it. To be fair, pretending to forget has helped Dallas achieve some remarkable accomplishments in those years, like the completion of the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the development of the astonishingly successful Cowboys franchise and the creation of what remains one of the country's most electric local economies.

But those are transient triumphs in the face of what has always been left unsaid, what the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald once called the "dark night of the soul," on which the bright Texas sun has yet to rise. The far right of 1963 and the radicalism of my grandparents' generation may have faded in recent years, they remain very much alive in Dallas. Look no further than the troop of gun-rights activists who appeared just days ago, armed and silent, outside a meeting of local mothers concerned about gun violence. If this is what counts as responsible civic dialogue, then Dallas has a long way still to go.

This year Dallas has a chance to grapple with the painful legacy of 1963 in public and out loud. Unfortunately, that's unlikely to happen.

It's a damning piece, one that screams for a rebuttal. For that, we turn to an article that emphatically declares not only that Dallas has moved past the Kennedy assassination but that it was never really to blame in the first place. It ran in the New York Times on November 21, 1988.

That piece portrayed a city that had been deeply scarred by the assassination and the scorn that had been heaped upon it. It cites a study by an SMU psychology professor showing that "suicide, murder and heart disease death rates in Dallas increased markedly in the year after the assassination and that many city residents still exhibit the symptoms of victims of socially unacceptable acts like rape."

Sure, the city had a mean streak, but that had mellowed by 1988. The "business oligarchy that ran Dallas and nurtured its business-knows-best attitude has grudgingly given way to a more open political structure," the Times wrote. "The city now has a Jewish woman as Mayor and black men as city manager and superintendent of schools." The Dallas Morning News had transformed from a mouthpiece of conservative vitriol into a moderate, mainstream big-city newspaper.

But the main thrust of that article was that the "city of hate" moniker was unjust and that, besides, Dallas was a different place.

That's doubly true 25 years later, even if the prediction offered by Dallas historian A.C. Greene at the end of the piece is not.

"The next significant anniversary will be the 50th," he said. "By then, I suspect we'll talk about Dallas the same way we talk about Sherman's march to the sea. Even the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of those who remember it can't really feel any movement of the spirit about it now.''

Maybe by the 75th?

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson