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.

ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, JAN. 13, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - FILE - 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. 
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Francie Tidey
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Francie Tidey
Nov. 22, 2013, 9:05 a.m.

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.)

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