A month after the American people were left stunned and confused by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, prominent Dallas businessman, JFK supporter and CEO of Neiman Marcus Stanley Marcus sat down to write, “What’s Right with Dallas,” a controversial advertisement published on New Year’s Day 1964 in newspapers around the country.
In writing this ad, Marcus intended to call for calm in the wake of this tragedy, but instead, received a variety of responses, ranging from supportive to outraged.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was assassinated in Dealey Plaza, in downtown Dallas Nov. 22, 1963. The fatal shot, fired by Lee Harvey Oswald from the upper floors of the Texas School Book Depository, came in the midst of an unstable period in the city’s history.
“At the time of the Kennedy killing, Dallas was labeled a city of hate, the city that hates. Before Kennedy was killed, there had been some pretty extreme, brazen imagery of people waving rebel flags, people with extreme right wing anti-government views, and people had been attacked here in the city,” according to Rick Halperin, the director of SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program.
Although only a small population of Dallas was extremely critical of John F. Kennedy’s visit, “They made their views prominent and public by taking out full-page newspaper advertisements and handing out fliers with phrases like ‘Kennedy is guilty of treason’ and ‘Kennedy is not wanted,’” said Jeffrey Engel, the director of SMU’s Center for Presidential History.
In the attempt to restore Dallas’ national image from the city of hate in the aftermath of the assassination, Marcus wrote a controversial Neiman Marcus advertisement, which, along with numerous other artifacts pertaining to the assassination, can be found on display at SMU’s DeGolyer Library.
“He wrote “What’s Right with Dallas” in part, to counteract the label — city of hate — that developed in the wake of the assassination,” said Dennis Simon, an associate professor of political science in Dedman College.
In his advertisement, Marcus made note of Dallas’ positive characteristics, even during such a great national crisis.
“We think there’s a lot right with Dallas. We think the dynamic growth of this city in the past thirty years has been no accident; that the factors that motivated this growth are still present and can continue to contribute to the development of Dallas as one of the major centers of distribution, banking, specialized manufacturing, insurance in the country,” Marcus wrote.
According to Halperin, “Marcus was concerned about the city of Dallas’ image and wanted Dallas to be seen in a more positive light, clearly for the business community here. He, in many ways, was concerned in 1963 that Dallas be seen in a more favorable way and that the killing of Kennedy be isolated to the negative persona of Lee Harvey Oswald as an aberration to Dallas.”
In addition to revealing what he thought was right with Dallas in the 60s, Marcus also revealed what the citizens of Dallas could do to improve their city.
“Here seems to us to be some of the areas for community improvement — areas in which each of us as citizens, taxpayers and voters can exercise both individual and collective influence,” Marcus noted.
His ideas about how the city could use this period of self-examination for its own betterment ranged from noting Dallas’ terrible political extremism to shedding some light on the city’s need to focus less on its “civic image” and more on “doing good things not doing bad things.”
Responses to Marcus’ advertisement ranged from agreement to anger. In a letter to Marcus, Paul G. Hoffman, managing director of the United Nations Special Fund, wrote, “I read with interest and high approval… I hope that Dallas listened and took your good advice to heart.”
Some Neiman Marcus customers on the other hand, including Mrs. James T. Jones of Wichita, Texas, were infuriated by the advertisement.
“Mr. Marcus, your recent editorial advertisement was one step too far for me and hence I cannot continue to spend money at Neiman Marcus for you in turn to finance the ad of January 1 in The Dallas Morning News,” Jones expressed in a letter to Marcus.
Engel believes that the pushback Marcus received in response to his advertisement can be explained through Marcus’ attribution of the assassination.
“People were unhappy because if you believe that Dallas played a role in killing the president, then the people of Dallas are responsible. If you believe that it could have happened anywhere, then the people of Dallas are not responsible,” Engel notes.
“So, people in Dallas have a deep investment in trying to portray this as not a Dallas story, but a story between Kennedy and Oswald and could have happened anywhere.”
Marcus’ intention was to highlight the good he saw in the city, and also, make note of several changes he believed the citizens of Dallas could make to better their city, not accuse them of the assassination.
According to Halperin, “Marcus clearly could be seen as a positive influence of the city in one of its worst moments. The killing of a president, it doesn’t get much worse than that. He was at the forefront of calling for calm and trying to get the city to come together in a healthy, healing way.”
Now, in 2013, in the midst of the 50th anniversary of the assassination, Dallas has come together and moved far beyond that terrible moment in history, “But the Kennedy killing will always cast a shadow on this city,” Halperin believes.