Ten years after the John F. Kennedy assassination, Dallas Mayor Wes Wise was at a convention of mayors when someone asked him how it felt to be the mayor of the “Town that Killed Kennedy.”
“I didn’t even realize, but I clenched my fists,” said Wise, who was mayor from 1971
“People called Dallas the city of hate and so forth, but I never bought that — it could have happened in any city.”
After Nov. 22, 1963, people all over the nation had opinions of Dallas. Some called Dallas the “Town of Hate” or the “Killing Town.”
Others sympathized with the people of Dallas. Still others thought Dallas was nothing but a cowboy town waiting to be noticed.
Now, 50 years after the Kennedy assassination, Dallas is far from the place it used to be. Here is a look at where the city came from, how it changed and where it is going.
The Dark Days
The mood in Dallas leading up to JFK’s 1963 visit was a mix of high-anticipation, excitement, resentment and even hate.
Hugh Aynesworth, who reported on the Kennedy assassination for The Dallas Morning News, recalls a city with a hateful atmosphere where the Dallas Citizens Council made most political and business decisions.
The Dallas Citizens Council started in 1937 as an organization of civic-minded businessmen. In addition to running their businesses, these men influenced the political landscape of the city. The group primarily endorsed business elite, who at the time, were mostly white males.
“It was a very small, but very instrumental, very powerful group,” Aynesworth said. “Just ask anyone who tried to run against them.”
Aynesworth believes that most of the anger came from this one small, but powerful, sector of the city. “They were very vocal; they were haters,” he said.
Wise, who at the time was a reporter for KRLD-TV, recalls a similar atmosphere.
“Things were going haywire in Dallas at the time,” Wise said of the high-intensity political climate in the days leading up to Kennedy’s visit. “The rabid crowd seemed to feed off each other.”
“The city was set in its ways, and in many ways, segregated racially and politically. When the president died, so did the old Dallas because the city was in shock,” Wise said.
“Everyone was showing emotion at that time,” he said.
While Dallas was in shock, the rest of the country reacted to the city, often in negative ways. Aynesworth recalls stories of cab drivers kicking Dallasites out of their cars in other cities.
“Everyone hated Dallas,” he said.
Big D in Transition
The mood in Dallas did not shift quickly. It took time, energy and commitment from community leaders. Lyda Hill, president of LH Holdings and a lifelong Dallas resident and philanthropist, remembers the city as it tried to redefine itself.
“Dallas, after the assassination, had to return to its roots and pull itself up by its boot straps,” Hill said, who has lived in Dallas for over 60 years.
It took a series of city leaders, including mayors Erik Jonsson and Wise, to change the city’s identity from what it was before the assassination to one that was more accepting and broader-minded and less racially charged.
“There was a very conscious effort to do something, a very conscious effort to pull Dallas together,” Hill said, who has given millions of dollars to local institutions and landmarks, including KERA and the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge.
Jonsson purchased the land that now hosts DFW International Airport and sold it back to the city for only a dollar more per acre than what he paid for it.
He also founded the Dallas Central Library, and started Goals for Dallas, a program to involve a wider swath of citizens from around Dallas in city planning.
“His motivation was that he was trying to pull Dallas out of this image of the killing town,” Hill said, who graduated from The Hockaday School and recently gave $20 million to the all-girls school.
The Dallas Cowboys became America’s team when it started appearing in playoffs and winning Super Bowls in the late ‘60s and ‘70s.
The television show “Dallas” took off in 1978 and humanized the Big D for many people outside of Texas.
Wise won mayor without being associated with the Dallas Citizens Council, whose influence was waning as people from more diverse neighborhoods and socioeconomic backgrounds became more involved in the city.
“By that time, I think a lot of that atmosphere had evaporated,” Wise said.
Dallas and its Challenges
While Dallas has advanced in many ways, it still struggles with some fundamental challenges, including the quality of its public schools and the disparity between socioeconomic classes.
Garland resident and SMU senior Jaywin Malhi notices the gap.
“While the rich in Dallas are very, very rich, there is also a very large underprivileged population that is often overlooked,”
In the Dallas Independent School district, for instance, more than 86 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, according to the Texas Education Agency.
Also evident is the ethnic and racial divide in the city.
While 29 percent of Dallas residents are white, 23 percent are black and 44 percent are Hispanic, according to Dallas Economic Development.
Many of these groups are geographically separated, with lower income minorities living in the southern sector and affluent whites in the northern area.
“There’s some challenges on the racial side,” said Tom Leppert, mayor of Dallas from 2007 to 2011.
But still the city is evolving.
Dallas Morning News editor Bob Mong has witnessed a shift in the Dallas mindset. For Mong, who has been editor of the paper for the past 12 years, the transformation of the city was most evident in the election of Ron Kirk as mayor in 1995.
“I am certain Dallas would not have elected a black mayor a generation before,” Mong said, who estimates we will see a Hispanic mayor of Dallas in the next 10 years.
New City and New Opportunity
When Dallasites describe their city today, they often talk about economic opportunity, city growth and developing arts.
“Dallas just has so much big stuff happening,” Hill said. “Dallas has a name around the world.”
New additions to the downtown cultural landscape like the AT&T Performing Arts Center, Klyde Warren Park and the Perot Museum of Nature and Science have established Dallas as a cultural hub, not just a business one.
Leppert describes Dallas as a vibrant, optimistic place.
“In a lot of ways, it has blossomed,” Leppert said.
The Dallas Citizens Council still operates, but the group also now includes women and minority business leaders and is no longer seen as a divisive force.
SMU student Alicia Arnold decided to attend college in Dallas because of the sense of opportunity in the city.
“I always thought that Dallas was a very good business place where there were a lot of jobs,” said the sophomore from Cape Girardeau, Mo.
“What differentiates Dallas in dealing with its challenges is that the city has an optimistic attitude,” Leppert said.
“People in Dallas think of the best days as being ahead.”