Following President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination in downtown Dallas, leaders from the city were asked to attend his funeral — as the student body president of SMU, John Hill flew in to attend the services honoring JFK and to pay his respects on behalf of the both university and Dallas community.
“It was hard to believe Kennedy had been assassinated and even more so in Dallas,” Hill said, speaking to the shared sentiments of his fellow Dallas attendees. “We were all kind of shell shocked.”
While Dallas became, for many Americans, a city of hate and betrayal following the assassination, similar associations existed years prior as well.
“It was actually a very toxic environment politically,” Hill said, speaking to far-right political groups that displayed “violence and animosity for people they didn’t agree with” during even the early stages of the 1960 presidential campaign.
Darwin Payne, a professor emeritus at SMU and a reporter for The Dallas Morning News throughout the time of the Kennedy assassination and aftermath, explained that President Kennedy’s planned visit was one of skeptical support after several years of hostile political gatherings.
Following U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson’s visit to Dallas several years prior, during which he was “spat upon, [and] had his speech interrupted constantly by a packed auditorium,” Payne said, “the same laments attacked [Vice President] Johnson and Lady Bird” during a campaign visit in 1960.
“There was great fear and apprehension of the treatment and safety of the president while he was here,” Payne said.
Hill echoed these sentiments of hostility and aggression, and when it came time for him to address the university upon his return from the funeral, he “felt [all at the university] had a duty to go beyond campus and solve that problem” in the greater Dallas community.
Hill explained that, at the time, there seemed to be three contexts within which SMU students experienced the assassination: one section of students who were “supportive of Kennedy…particularly with civil rights” and were therefore “really quite affected;” others who were not fans “but were affected by [JFK’s assassination] and felt saddened by it;” and a third group of non-supporters for whom “it did not mean a lot to them in their personal lives.”
Hill wanted his message to reach the entirety of the student body, regardless of their political views on Kennedy himself, because the issue of hatred stretched beyond even that.
His attendance at the funeral was, inwardly, “in search of understanding, in search of why our country had been denied the life and leadership of a man who stood for the things that all men should stand for: freedom, equality of opportunity, world peace and the elimination of prejudice and bigotry,” Hill said.
“We needed to rid our society of that kind of hate and be more open to each other and each other’s ideas,” Hill said. “I was also trying to energize them in committing themselves to working for the public good.”
In the years following Kennedy’s assassination, Hill said he saw “growing student involvement” in the social programs on campus concerning civil rights and wartime peace. He himself helped to lead a group of students and professors alike on a civil rights pilgrimage to further reflect on Kennedy’s larger message for equality and fairness.
Now 50 years later, SMU is a campus of both part unity and part division — there are continuously growing numbers of student diversity programs and organizations. There are also reports of hate crimes targeting issues including race and gender orientation.
Current Student Body President Ramon Trespalacios believes that “there is still work to do towards creating a campus community where every individual feels respected and valued.”
“It is important to understand that, in order for us to achieve our goal of creating a 100 percent inclusive campus, we need to…remember that what one Mustang does or says impacts the whole community,” Trespalacios said.
He explained that the hate crimes that “have occurred in the past, even this year” need to come to a complete halt if the university wants to “achieve [its] goal of creating a 100 percent inclusive campus.”
“It is our responsibility as students to take ownership of the issue and let people know that…SMU is no place for such actions,” Trespalacios said. “I challenge every SMU student to speak up whenever they see something that impedes us from becoming the best community we can be.”