What impact does JFK’s death have on Dallas 60 years later? Local experts share thoughts
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Carolyn Barta wrote nearly two decades ago that the city of Dallas was one of wide-brim hats and narrow viewpoints before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
A former editor and writer at The Dallas Morning News, she quipped in a 2003 column for the newspaper that the city “harbored a branch of right-wing extremism that was uncharacteristic of other places.” She wrote that the assassination did change Dallas — from what people branded it as a “city of hate” to one that is more diverse, accepting and tolerant.
Barta was one of four people who spoke about the lingering impacts of Kennedy’s assassination at the University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law on Friday night. A few weeks shy of the 60-year anniversary of the former president’s slaying in Dallas, the college and The News hosted a panel discussion with longtime writers and a former state legislator to talk about the impact on them personally and the city.
Kennedy was killed while riding in a presidential motorcade through Dealey Plaza, about a mile away from the college, on Nov. 22, 1963. Lee Harvey Oswald was charged with his assassination, allegedly shooting Kennedy from a sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository, where The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza now resides.
After his arrest, Oswald was taken to the former Dallas City Hall building, where the UNT-Dallas law school now resides, and was fatally shot. The college completed an exhibit in 2021 portraying the history of the building related to Kennedy’s assassination and Oswald’s death.
Tom Huang, the moderator of the panel and the assistant managing editor for journalism initiatives at The News, asked the panel questions that included where they were when the assassination took place, what immediate impact it had on the city and what impact it have now.
Regarding the immediate impact of his death, Helen Giddings, who served over two decades in the state House of Representatives, said the blame lied on all residents in Dallas rather than just Oswald.
“We were seen not only in this country but pretty much around the world as having killed the president,” Giddings said.
Darwin Payne, a former journalist and author, said Dallas had already been labeled as a city of hate even prior to Kennedy’s death. Payne, who covered Kennedy’s assassination as a reporter, said many people felt the president should not come to Dallas and that he would be in danger.
Many people in the Black community believed he was killed because of his position on civil rights issues, Giddings said. His position evolved over time, she said, pointing to his involvement with the integration at University of Alabama and his address on civil rights in the same year of his death. Black people worried, she said, that the push for civil rights would stall.
“It was a very frightening time for people of color, believing that the hands on the clock were going to be turned back,” she said.
Barta said the city was controlled by its oligarchy, with power in the hands of business leaders and the assassination sparked a great deal of “soul searching” for the city.
“To what extent were we responsible as a community?” she said. “Was there an atmosphere in our city that allowed this to happen here?”
Changes to the city first began, the panelists noted, when Erik Jonsson became mayor in 1964 and launched a program where citizens of different ethnicities could share their ideas. In addition, the first Black candidates were elected a few years later to the state legislature, the school board and the city council. The political climate of the city changed, with a majority of Democrats taking office.
Michael Granberry, an arts reporter at The News, was a week away from his 12th birthday when Kennedy was killed. A Dallas native, he said he remembers wanting to miss school and see the president’s motorcade that day, but his father advised against it after seeing a full-page advertisement in The News “filled with hate.”
As a grade-school student, he said of Kennedy’s death: “My childhood ended right after lunch.”
Regarding the lingering impact of his death, Payne said it’s reduced, noting that there are very few people living in the city today who remember the assassination. He noted that at the time of Kennedy’s death white people were the largest demographic by far in the city. Now, census data shows white people make up about 54% of the city’s population, with Hispanics comprising about 42%.
Even 20 years after his death, Payne noted that a survey from the Detroit Free Press that asked people what their first impression of Dallas was had Kennedy’s assassination at third behind Dallas, the television soap opera that launched in the late 70s, and the Dallas Cowboys.
Huang posed a last question to the panelists asking how the city should commemorate the assassination and memorialize JFK in the future. Two things Giddings mentioned were creating a space to honor Kennedy’s life and vision for the country and most importantly, follow his vision.
“Can we do more with our hearts and somehow find a way to get all of us to be willing to create and embrace a culture of civility and inclusiveness?” Giddings asked.
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