For Better or Best, Dallas Citizens Council Opens the Book on Its Past

Last December at the annual meeting of the Dallas Citizens Council -- a private, sometimes secretive body long powerful in local affairs -- outgoing president John Scovell said, “We’re changing back to the good old days.” He was talking about Tom Leppert getting elected mayor, among other things.

But the question with the Citizens Council is always the same: How good were those good old days? When the Dallas Citizens Council ran the city from behind the curtain at its secret meetings, was the city better off?

As if to answer that very question, the Citizens Council this week is proudly unveiling a new self-published history of itself, an over-sized paperback titled Dallas Citizens Council: An Obligation of Leadership. I believe their answer to my second question would be a resounding: Yes, yes, yes. All you have to do is read their book to find out why.

I’m still reading. The author is my favorite local historian, Darwin Payne. So far I haven’t founds any glaring instances of fudging or suppressing the city’s past.

That used to be more of a problem. When I came here in the late 1970s, white Dallas still told the story that Dallas had never seen racial unrest, which was quite a whopper. In this book Payne tells the story of the 1950s bombings of black homes and of the role of the Citizens Council played in helping bring the attacks to an end.

But I’m still touchy, I guess. I’m like John Wiley Price and the black hole debate. Maybe I’m just too darned sensitive to language.

The Citizens Council, for example, has a real tough time deciding what to call black people in its book. In a section devoted to early levee-building projects along the Trinity River, the book quotes civic-leader Karl Hoblitzelle as saying in the 1930s: “We must demonstrate fairness to the Negro population.”

And that was the word back then. Negro. Accepted usage at the time.

I think the book goes pretty light on what Hoblitzelle and the Citizens Council were really talking about -- using eminent domain to seize black-owned homes. But let’s give them a history pass on that. That was then. This is now.

In most references, the book describes African-Americans as black or African-American. But every once in a while the book slips. Speaking of a special “blue ribbon” grand jury appointed to investigate the bombings, the book says: “Three Negro grand jurors were appointed, and they were far more than window-dressing.”

On the next page we learn that one way the Citizens Council worked to end the bombings was by “looking for a suitable location for a new housing development for Negroes.”

Yeah, I know, it’s confusing, because the book is about history, and back in history that was the word. But today, well, we’re pretty much living in the time of now, and, uh … we really do not use that word any more. At all. It’s what we call “freighted with unpleasant connotation.”

In the black hole debate, Commissioner Price talked about how white people who do not want to piss off black people are extra careful how they use the word "black." And you are free to agree or disagree with that assertion just as vehemently as you choose, this being America. But answer me this, my fellow white boy: Are you not real, real careful when it comes to how you use the word “Negro” these days? Can you imagine the word accidentally slipping into your business correspondence? As in, “The company hopes these sessions, led by a trained facilitator, will promote better understanding between white and Negro employees.”

Nah. That ain’t gonna happen, right? I didn’t think so. All of which makes this book absolutely fascinating reading in some very unintended ways -- amazing reading. And that should be a big clue to what they mean when they talk about “the good old days.”

Maybe not so good, eh? Not so good at all. --Jim Schutze

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky