Fifty years ago today I was attending classes at W.E. Greiner Jr. High School in the Oak Cliff sector of Dallas. It was a month away from my 15th birthday. This was my first year attending the public school system in Dallas after having spent my first 8 years in Catholic schools. I had a few friends at Greiner that I’d met before attending there because they were kids who lived in my neighborhood.
Unlike most of the non-Catholics grade school kids I encountered prior to this when I was younger however, they didn’t seem to be hostile to the fact that I was a Catholic. Yes, even back then, thousands of miles away from Ireland and other European nations that still held bitter feeling between the so-called “papist” and protestants, there were animosities other than racism that were harbored among Southern white, middle class Americans.
Jack Kennedy, the first catholic President of the United States was paying Dallas a visit that day in efforts to shore up the rift in the Democratic Party here in Texas between old style Roosevelt Democrats and the more virulent Strom Thurmond Dixiecrats. Both Dallas newspapers, the Dallas Morning News and the now defunct Dallas Times Herald had written scathing editorials about the liberal President just days before his visit. For most outsiders, Dallas was not seen as a friendly place for the new Commander-in-Chief and yet here he was, with his ever popular and lovely wife, flying into the alleged lion’s den.
But there were tens of thousands of us in Dallas who loved the Kennedy’s. Most to be sure were the area’s Catholic population. But there was an urbane crowd apart from those that lived here too who were captivated by the “Camelot” couple from Hyannis Port and were excited they were visiting our booming metropolis on a bright clear and cool November day.
To my surprise and delight the school district allowed those who wanted to watch the President as he paraded through the streets in Downtown Dallas to leave class mid-morning, provided we had a permission slip from our parents. I had no problem getting this from my mom the night before. She was a single working mom at the time and back then a 14-year-old boy came and went around the city with little concern for his safety, unlike today. I was too young to drive but the city had great bus services that I was all to familiar with.
I caught the bus at the corner of Edgefield and 12th Street about 10am. Across the street was the 7-11 store where many a fight took place after school between many Greiner boys who had to defend their honor or forever be known as a coward. Fights that started over nothing more than someone sitting at a lunch room table where a particular clique had already declared it theirs for that lunch period.
I had no sooner gotten on the bus than the realization hit me how crowded it was going to be in downtown for this event. I had been downtown numerous times including earlier that year when the James Bond Movie “From Russia With Love” was showing at the Majestic theater, but always did so with my peers. This time I was alone and didn’t feel like dealing with the hassle of crowded streets. The thought occurred to me too that I might not even get there in time to see the President and Jackie or would simply get stuck behind adults obscuring my view of the presidential motorcade. I was very small for my age at the time and would be until I was 17.
So I hopped off at Jefferson Blvd and Edgefield and walked about six blocks to the Cliff Davis apartments where we were living at the time. They sat directly across the street from St. Cecilia’s Catholic elementary school where I attended 7 of the eight years before going to Greiner public school. I was in the 6th grade at St. Cecilia’s when Kennedy won the election over Nixon in 1960. Needless to say most of us were elated that finally the stigma of being a catholic would be diminished some now that JFK had broken that barrier.
To my surprise however there was one particular kid, Robert Foley, from an Irish heritage family no less, who bemoaned the fact that a liberal Democrat was now sitting in the White House. I’m sure he got his views of Kennedy as well as other liberals from his ultra-conservative and wealthy father. I really had no idea at the time what a liberal or a conservative was, though upon reflection, now I can see how much of my left-leaning orientation began to emerge with the election of this new and vibrant President who was challenging the status quo of the earlier Eisenhower years.
I really don’t recall all that much of what happened between the time I had gotten off of the bus, headed for my apartment and the time I got the phone call from my mom informing me the president had been shot. I can only attribute it to a mother’s intuition in how she knew I was at home at that time rather than downtown watching the presidential parade.
The frantic conversation went something like this.
“Good you’re at home. Were you there when Kennedy was shot”
“The president has been shot”
“I decided not to go down at the last minute but came home for lunch instead.”
‘Thank God. Turn on the TV. It’s all over the TV.
I did so immediately and when the 20-30 seconds finally elapsed to allow the old black and white screen to fade in, there was Walter Cronkite in the hustle and bustle of his news room conveying information about what had just transpired on the streets of downtown Dallas, just moments earlier.
I hung up the phone and slumped back in the couch and like so many millions of other Americans that day, watched with horror as the tragedy unraveled and the conclusion none of us wanted to hear was finally declared by Mr. Cronkite. As he received the bulletin laid on his desk he took off his glasses, a tear in his eye, looking up at the wall clock notifying us that President Kennedy had died “at 1:00pm, central standard time, 2pm eastern standard time, some 38 minutes ago.”
At that moment the world became an ugly place unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I was too naive to understand the depth of the hate-filled politics that existed in our world at the time, even though I could see much of the racist angst all around me and the anti-communist rhetoric that was prevalent during this latent Joe McCarthy period. But not until this very awful event occurred did I come in to touch with just how damaging it all really was.
I would learn later that day that Lee Harvey Oswald was picked up less than a mile away from my home at the Texas Theater on Jefferson Blvd. A theater I frequented often and where I had seen “To Kill a Mockingbird” just a year ago. I can’t count the number of Saturday matinées I watched there as a child in the 50’s. I would have probably seen the 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate there too had it not been withdrawn that year from distribution due to lack of interest. Not as a result of Kennedy’s assassination as had been rumored.
It was said that Oswald was hiding out in the Texas theater after supposedly shooting officer JD Tippit at the intersection of Tenth St. and Patton Ave. just off of Jefferson Blvd, about 9 blocks from an old frame house we lived in on Brooklyn St. back in the mid 1950’s. These events that are now a part of history were in my own back yard. Even before the national outrage aimed at Dallas kicked in, I was ashamed that my hometown was used to play out the hate-filled politics of that time.
Three years later I would drop out of high school and join the Marine Corps. When people I served with discovered where I was from there would be the obvious looks and remarks associated with the president’s assassination. One person, a young black man about my age whom I liked a lot would benignly refer to me as Lee Harvey Beck. It would anger me but I had resolved that it was something I would just have to live with.
I wish I could say that things were different today than they were back then, especially as it regards the extremist political views that find it just as expedient to kill someone in resolving conflicts as it does to deny they even exist. The hate that manifested itself back in 1963 leading to Kennedy’s murder is alive and well today in thousands of people who feel that the power of a bullet aimed at their adversaries will exact a degree of justice.
The same driving forces that led to Kennedy’s death are among us today with people who harbor enormous fear about things they little understand and feel helpless in preventing through normal means. And if there is one thing there will always be plenty to fear, it is the change that naturally occurs over time. When it happens too fast for some their only impulse becomes to kill that which they perceive as the agent of that change. And nothing kills quicker and more effectively than a high-powered gun.
Thank god gun ownership wasn’t as pronounced then as it is today. Otherwise more than mere fisticuffs that settled differences behind the 7-11 in my day would have resulted in more violent outcomes.