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Letter from Dallas, 1963: Hate, Race and 'What My City Did to My President' Letter from Dallas, 1963: Hate, Race and 'What My City Did to My Presi...

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Letter from Dallas, 1963: Hate, Race and 'What My City Did to My President'

Francie Tidey was a 24-year-old Wellesley graduate teaching in Dallas; she and her husband were supposed to watch the president's speech later that day. Here's what she saw.

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In this Nov. 22, 1963 file photo, the limousine carrying mortally wounded President John F. Kennedy races toward the hospital seconds after he was shot in Dallas. Secret Service agent Clinton Hill is riding on the back of the car, Nellie Connally, wife of Texas Gov. John Connally, bends over her wounded husband, and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy leans over the president. (AP Photo/Justin Newman)

On Nov. 22, 1963, Francie Tidey was a 24-year-old Wellesley graduate teaching at the Hockaday School in Dallas. Her father, a Republican, gave her and her husband, Pat, his tickets to see President John F. Kennedy speak at the Trade Mart.

A month later, she wrote this letter to her friends and family.

 

December 29, 1963

This time of year makes me think of friends thousands of miles away, and there is so much to catch up on that it makes it much easier to write a joint letter.

Pat and I are just beginning to recuperate from the shock and grief of having Kennedy slain in our city. It seemed unbelievably close to us. We had taken off from our respective schools to go to the airport to see them come in. We were not the group with whom they were shaking hands, but we saw him as they got in the black convertible and drove past us. Kennedy looked extremely tan and healthy; Pat and I marveled over how young and athletic he looked. He had an expression on his face which looked like slight amazement to see such warmth in Dallas. After he passed by, Pat and I hurried to our car to try to beat the traffic out of the airport. That was impossible. Thousands of cars were jammed in the same parking lot. We sat and sat and sat. I was afraid we were trapped for the rest of the afternoon.

 

My father had given us his two tickets to the luncheon at the Trade Mart, and the snarl was so bad I was sure we were going to miss the speech. We had the radio on, following his progress downtown, but about 12:20 we turned it off. Finally we got free and headed towards the luncheon. We were going down the freeway towards the Trade Mart. The traffic was terrible and nerve-wracking. Pat was concentrating on that, but just as we passed Parkland Hospital on our right, I saw two motorcycle police escorts screaming towards us. Following were two black convertibles which looked exactly like what we had seen at the airport. In a split second I thought that the presidential caravan was changing its parade route. Then because I didn’t see anyone in the front car except a man sitting on the back seat, I dismissed the idea.

“Was that an accident?” I asked Pat; he hadn’t seen it—only heard it. The second car speeding past was packed with men in dark suits—I remember tentatively thinking they must be reporters. I later realized that they were Secret Service men and that in the first car everyone was down on the floor, that the man on the backseat was the man Jackie had climbed for. I remember seeing that man lean down from his position far into the car, do something with his hands, and then sit up again—all in a couple of seconds.

Had we had the radio on, we would have known that the president had been shot, but we went on to the Trade Mart. On the way up to the balcony in the elevator, the woman ahead of me turned to me and said, “Isn’t it awful?” I asked her what and she said someone shot the President. I was stunned, but when I turned around to tell Pat, he said that kind of rumor was bound to start in a place this large, and in this city. None of the guards seemed to be acting differently, so we went to our table and began eating lunch.

Soon, however, people starting milling around and presently the rumor reached our table. Hearing this twice sent Pat and me tearing back to where the local TV was broadcasting. The reporter was saying into his microphone, “We have just received a report that the President has been shot.” Just then Eric Jonsson, the head of the Dallas Citizens’ Council ... was making an announcement from the head table. Instead of listening to that, we found some people with a transistor radio. Ironically, at the same time Eric Jonsson was saying, “We don’t yet know how serious it is,” the NBC commentator was saying two priests had been called to the hospital. Pat and I looked at each other with utter dismay, and he blurted out the first thing that came into his mind. “He’s going to die—Goldwater is going to be the next president.” It was an expression of how orphaned we both felt. As it turned out, Goldwater had faded, but I remember feeling with horror that we had spilled intelligence all over the street and as an ignorant people we would embrace a simplistic figure.

 

Our next instinct was to follow the President to Parkland. I can understand Jacqueline Kennedy’s insistence on staying with the coffin. I felt something of that same impulse, wishing somehow to keep him from slipping through our fingers.

I can understand Jacqueline Kennedy’s insistence on staying with the coffin. I felt something of that same impulse, wishing somehow to keep him from slipping through our fingers.

 

Hundreds of people were standing outside the emergency entrance; most of them were Negroes. A young Negro couple were holding on to each other and crying. We saw that they were in a group of people who had a radio, so we went over. Right then, as we were standing in the midst of all kinds and conditions of mankind, we heard, “The President is dead.” The young Negro couple, Pat and I, the old woman standing off by herself with the tears streaming down her miserable face; a little Negro boy who asked his attractive mother as she dragged him away from the hospital, “Who shot him?” and heard her reply, “It’s a good thing I don’t know”; the white mother standing behind her child in a stroller who screamed, “God has sent a scourge on this city! We are being punished for our sins!”—all of us had something in common at that point.

People here have the same varying feelings as elsewhere, except it seems so close here. The Negroes feel the Messiah has been crucified. I have been working with the youth council of the NAACP; at the first meeting after the assassination, they were talking about Kennedy as a martyr to their cause. Intellectually, I know that Kennedy did not literally die as a martyr, but I cannot help sharing the emotional attachment to him as a martyr to the cause of freedom. Since his death there has been more freedom of speech in this city than ever before. “Hate Kennedy” is no longer an appropriate answer to any breed of liberal opinion; thus you can speak more freely without being cut off and ostracized. Slightly after the spitting and hitting of [Adlai] Stevenson, and definitely after the killing of Kennedy, there is a new mood afoot that hate is unfashionable. This alone makes it easier to breathe. And after suffering what my city did to my president, I have grown into a mood of mad abandon which makes me feel that I really cannot care about what people think of me. This has been a little hard this year because some parents have been bitter in their criticism of me for going to NAACP meetings, but the school has backed me. Still, when parents like former Gov. Allen Shivers inform the grapevine that Mrs. Tidey is a rabble-rouser, which is equal to being a liberal, which is equal to being a pinko, it is hard to take this ignorance and bigotry lightly. But Texans are becoming a little sensitive now to acting the role of bigots with which they have been stereotyped across the nation, and you hear less outspoken hate these days. Still, the millennium is far from here. The tolerance kick stems more from self-consciousness in front of the world of our “image” rather than from any commitment to diversity.

The excessive concern Dallas has with its image was evident in the immediate instinct of the superintendent of schools to suspend even temporarily a fourth-grade public school teacher for writing a letter to Time suggesting Dallas was not altogether free of hatred. The sermon of Dr. Holmes citing the applause of the schoolchildren has been intolerable to most Dallasites. Texans are very sensitive to criticism, especially when aired aboard. It is in this respect—the inability to engage in self-criticism—that Dallas is woefully immature. Anyone can understand that the assassin himself was not Dallas, yet so much breath is wasted to exonerate the city on this obvious point. What disturbs me is that the effort to free the city on this account has squelched any effective self-examination of the community conscience. The leadership does not seem to be capable of separating the assassin from what he symbolizes—the dangerous and real existence of hatred and violence. Even on the most obvious count—the total ineptness of the police and county officials to deal with Oswald both in security measures and in civil rights—the leaders have refused to air concerns that so naturally are receiving national attention.

Anyone can understand that the assassin himself was not Dallas, yet so much breath is wasted to exonerate the city on this obvious point.

 

Community crisis is a natural time for introspection but the honorable citizens of Dallas refuse to engage in such exposure for fear of losing a prospective industry or convention. To the people who speak for the city its image is more important than its soul. Dallas is a very young city; it is a businessman’s city—no other powerful group exists; and it is a Texan city. Thus, while some growth has been forced on us by the sheer magnitude of the event, and while from this small growth I am benefitting personally, the nature of the leadership has atrophied a potential revolutionary event in midstream....

One positive outgrowth of the tragedy is that real Democrats have come out from under their rocks. North Dallas is the infamous center of Republican activity of the type that avidly supports Bruce Alger. But North Dallas is not 100 percent Dallas conservative, which is a breed all its own; for instance, the Tideys live in North Dallas. The astounding news is that there seem to be hundreds like us who have not shown their ugly heads because there has not been even the suggestion of an avenue.

The official Democratic organization in the city and the county has been conservative, and you can hardly identify yourself as a Democrat in this city and be saying what you mean. Now the Democrats in North Dallas who wish to realize their political goals through loyalty to the national party have organized into a club called, amazingly enough, the North Dallas Democrats. This is a grass-roots movement hopeful of eventually getting its own kind into the local Democratic party offices. The first job is to find out where all the national type Democrats are, precinct by precinct, door by door. After you find them, you make sure they buy a poll tax, for we are still saddled with that hallmark of democracy. Pat and I are deputized to sell the poll tax and we are going out this Tuesday to work. Pat is on the steering committee, one of ten; one of his St. Mark’s buddies nominated him and somehow he was elected. Today, North Dallas; tomorrow, the world.

So much for reflections from Dallas. We are hoping for a happier 1964. Happy New Year!

(Francie Tidey was the late mother-in-law of Tim Grieve, National Journal’s editor in chief.)

This article appears in the November 23, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as ‘The President Is Dead’.

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