Great Men Have Played Key Roles in Dallas History -- Just Not the Ones You're Thinking Of

Two interesting and ironically paired stories in the daily paper this morning -- one about an expensive planned do-over for the failed Victory Park development, a monument to the perils of great-man leadership, the other about a planned museum exhibit honoring J. Erik Jonsson, one of the city's most notable great-man leaders. In the end it's all about where you put your exclamation points.

A certain cadre in Dallas still cling to the notion that the city's progress in the past and destiny in the future are almost solely the province of uncompromising business leaders, even though a lot of evidence seems to point in some other directions, notably toward compromise and mutual respect. Maybe those many directions are not mutually exclusive, but Victory Park is a great example of what happens when it all goes one way.

The name, Victory Park, is actually a newer, somewhat stepped down version of the original moniker given the 75-acre master-planned 1990s development on the northwest corner of downtown. Designed on the assumption that people of quality would pay astronomical residential and office rents in order to be near a basketball arena, the development was originally called "Victory!" -- exclamation point required.

It was the brainchild of Ross Perot, Jr., son of a man who made billions computerizing government agencies around the world, and it was a classic example of the time-honored Dallas mentality of, "Build it, and they will do as they're told."

Well, they didn't, so the thing has been behind the eight ball pretty much from the day it opened. In anti-human mass and sterility, Victory!!!, as I prefer to call it, has always felt to me like an American version of The Seven Sisters, now the main building at Moscow State University, long considered the best example of Stalinist architecture. Walking through Victory !!! in August makes one feel like an ant in a microwave.

Victory!!! ultimately was a Defeat!!!! It bellied up. Some kind of Germans from Florida own it now.

Erik Jonsson was still chairman of the board of Texas Instruments in 1964 when he began a seven-year stint as mayor of Dallas. According to David Biegler, energy executive and chairman of the board of Dallas County's Old Red Museum, the planned Jonsson exhibit at Old Red will celebrate his role in helping Dallas get past the shock and stigma of the Kennedy assassination, or, as I think of it, the shock and stigma of the shock and stigma.

"It would have been easy for the city to go into depression and take forever to pull out of it," Biegler tells The Dallas Morning News today. "I think his legacy is that by his leadership and his example, he led the entire community to get beyond it."

Yeah, OK, maybe, sorta, depending on who you mean by "the entire community." My own favorite Erik Jonsson story happened in 1969, when City Hall was using eminent domain to expunge a neighborhood of homes and small businesses at the front of Fair Park, some of which were owned by black people, some by whites. In making its buyout offers, the city insisted it had to pay substantially lower amounts to black property-owners than white owners of equivalent nearby property because the black properties had lower intrinsic market values caused by the blackness of the owners.

A small nascent grassroots organization calling itself The Fair Park Homeowners, which really meant Black Fair Park Homeowners, tried repeatedly to meet with Jonsson. They were rebuffed and ignored. Jonsson, a supremely condescending man, had already made it plain he would not deal on a basis of equality with even more affluent middle class black organizations when they asked.

"We don't appreciate the implied power push of this type of presentation," he said.

The Fair Park group, considered rag-tag compared to other black groups Jonsson had already snubbed, had not a prayer of getting in to see the great man. Until 1969. That's when the Rev. Peter Johnson hit town.

Johnson, who had been a front-line soldier in the Civil Rights movement at the knee of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was sent to Dallas by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with orders to raise money by showing a movie about the martyred King and then get the hell back to Atlanta. Shocked by what he found in Dallas -- a city the Civil Rights Movement had forgotten -- he got caught up in the Fair Park Homeowners movement. And he's still here, much to the city's betterment. In fact, I'll start taking Old Red seriously after they do an exhibit about Peter Johnson.

Peter Johnson told the Fair Park Homeowners never again to ask to see Mayor Jonsson. He told them to tell the mayor to meet with them. They laughed at this outlandish outsider from Atlanta, of course, explaining to him the Dallas way and the cult of the Great Man: J. Erik Jonsson would never give in to such impudence, they said.

Yeah, Johnson said. He will. Watch.

On December 30, 1969, 48 hours before the Cotton Bowl Parade was to be nationally televised marching proudly into the gates of Fair Park, the Fair Park Homeowners notified Jonsson they would stage a countermarch to stop the parade if the mayor failed to meet with them. They gave him until midnight, December 31 to make up his mind.

Late into the final night, Jonsson was still refusing to meet with the group. A group of black activists and many white liberals from North Dallas gathered in the basement of the Rev. Mark Herbener's Mount Olive Lutheran Church on what is now MLK Boulevard, preparing to go out the next day and get their heads kicked in on network TV.

While they waited in the basement of the church, a series of bomb threats were called, many of them, Johnson suspected, from conservative black preachers allied with the powerful white Dallas Citizens Council.

Very late that night Jonsson's office called the church, agreeing to allow a delegation of Black Fair Park Homeowners to visit the great man in his City Hall offices. Peter Johnson didn't go into the mayor's office with them, but he gave the delegation clear instructions: do not leave without extracting a symbolic concession that will be visible tomorrow to the world and more to the point, visible to black people in South Dallas and the Quislings among the black preachers. No matter what the eventual outcome on the condemnations may be (it wasn't great), you must show the community tomorrow that you made the great man bow his proud head to you.

The next day when the parade rolled into Fair Park, a single Cadillac convertible led the way. In it sat J. Erik Jonsson, the great man, and his fellow passenger, J.B. Jackson, head of the Fair Park Homeowners, who on that day and on that street in the eyes of his own community was an even greater man. Almost twenty years later Peter Johnsson recalled standing on the parade route watching black people watch that car roll by.

"They stood there," he said. "And they looked. And they said, 'WOW!'"

Exclamation point required.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze