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50 years after JFK, Dallas sheds shadow of history

Sunday - 7/14/2013, 12:02am  ET

JAMIE STENGLE
Associated Press

DALLAS (AP) -- Anger seethes from the letter mailed to City Hall on Nov. 23, 1963, the day after the tragedy, raging that this city "virtually invited the poor insignificant soul who blotted out the life of President Kennedy to do it in Dallas.

"Dallas, the city of Hate; Dallas, the city of Shame."

As the nation and world mark this year's 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, special attention once again falls on the Texas metropolis. The "hate/shame" letter, which came from California and was one of many that poured in after the shooting, shows how the city instantly became a focus of fury, resentment and confusion, which locals have struggled with in the ensuing decades.

With scrutiny renewed by this year's milestone, Americans are learning again about the hostility toward Kennedy and his policies darkly voiced by some Dallasites before the assassination. The passing now of five decades prompts new reflection on the city's tormented but evolving response to the crime here that changed history. And finally, many Americans wonder: How will Dallas mark that terrible day this year?

No longer are residents confronted by scorn when they tell people they're from Dallas -- as then-Mayor Wes Wise was a decade after the assassination when asked by a fellow mayor how it felt to be the leader of "the city that killed Kennedy."

But it was a legacy that took time for the young city to come to terms with -- a conundrum symbolized by its debate over the fate of the Texas School Book Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald fired on the presidential motorcade from a sixth floor window.

The old depository building could have been razed but instead now houses the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, dedicated to telling the tale of that day unflinchingly.

"The story of the museum is also the story of Dallas," said Stephen Fagin, associate curator. "It's the story of the city and how the city has emerged from the long, dark shadow of history."

___

"Welcome Mr. Kennedy to Dallas." That was the headline across a full-page advertisement in The Dallas Morning News on Nov. 22, 1963, as the president made his way to the city on a political fence-mending trip.

A quick read made it clear the ad's greeting was sarcastic: It went on to ask a series of questions that implied he was a communist sympathizer.

Reading it, Kennedy quipped to first lady Jacqueline Kennedy that they were "heading into nut country."

Just four weeks earlier, his United Nations ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, had been harangued by a group of ultra-conservatives as he spoke at a downtown auditorium. Frank McGehee, a Dallasite who had founded the anti-communist National Indignation Convention, shouted questions at Stevenson through a bullhorn until police took him away. Audience members loudly interrupted Stevenson's speech, and as he left, a woman bopped him on the head with a protest sign.

"It was headlines across the nation," recalled Darwin Payne, a professor emeritus of communications at Southern Methodist University who was a reporter at the Dallas Times Herald in 1963.

Three years earlier, during the 1960 presidential campaign, protesters accosted Kennedy's running mate Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife Lady Bird as they crossed a downtown Dallas street from one hotel to another. At a White House luncheon in 1961, Dallas Morning News publisher E. M. "Ted" Dealey, told Kennedy to his face that a "man on horseback" was needed to lead the nation, not someone "riding Caroline's bicycle," a reference to Kennedy's young daughter. James F. Chambers Jr. of the rival Dallas Times Herald stood up and told Kennedy that Dealey's views didn't represent everyone in Dallas. A war of editorials followed.

Besides McGehee's group, the anti-communist John Birch Society had an active chapter in Dallas. And the outspoken Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker, who resigned from the U.S. Army after being reprimanded for giving troops right-wing propaganda, settled in Dallas, where he flew the American flag upside down in front of his home.

Anti-Kennedy fliers in the form of a "Wanted" poster with a mug shot-style portrait of the president appeared on the streets just before Kennedy's visit. Michael V. Hazel, historian of the city who was a high school sophomore in 1963, remembers his younger brother and a friend found such literature on the neighborhood sidewalk, leaving his family appalled. To most locals, Hazel said, "I think those incidents seemed rather isolated and almost fringe-type things."

But beyond the city, after the assassination, those incidents took on greater meaning to those looking for explanations. "The city got branded with the 'City of Hate' because the extreme conservatives, the right wingers, had a following and they were good at getting publicity," said Gary Mack, curator of the Sixth Floor Museum, who added, "A lot of people knew about them, but they didn't have a lot of followers."

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