Dallas Leaders Continue Acting Surprised By The Racial Unrest And Violence Taking Place In The City — As If It Isn’t How Things Have Always Been Done Here.
Cover photo by Shane McCormick.
This past Saturday afternoon, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson held a press conference in response to the previous night’s protests of the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
Dallasites had taken to the streets to protest Taylor’s and Floyd’s murders at the hands of Louisville and Minneapolis police, respectively. Protesters marched throughout Downtown Dallas, expressing their rage at a racist policing system that has time and again so carelessly discarded black lives.
By the end of the evening, the initially peaceful protest had turned violent. For the first time in decades, the Dallas Police Department used tear gas to disperse the crowd, no doubt escalating tensions.
But damage was already done — windows smashed and stores looted.
As Johnson addressed the press, he talked about how the previous night’s events reflected on the city. The “peaceful demonstration,” Johnson said, reflected “the Dallas I know.” But “Dallas is better than” what he characterized as the “selfish lawlessness” he saw as protest turned to riot. He gave voice to the idea that, for unexplained reasons, Dallas — a city known far and wide as the “City of Hate” — is immune to such public demonstrations of violence and strife.
The mayor certainly wasn’t alone in holding this rosy fantasy vision of our city. This kind of talk plays well in a place where business has traditionally been done quickly, quietly and at the behest of the Dallas Citizens Council — its the “Dallas Way,” this group of influential white Dallasites has always called it. But plenty of ordinary Dallasites too took to Twitter expressing their disapproval of the destruction and violence: “We’re better than this,” they say.
Any cursory glance at Big D’s history, however, shows that isn’t the case at all. In fact, public displays of violence have been all too common in North Texas throughout the years. And such public spectacles have not occurred without reason.Over its 150-plus year history, a pattern has emerged in Dallas. When the powers that be have felt threatened — even if such threats prove only illusory — reactionaries have used force to maintain an unequal and unjust status quo.
What we saw this past weekend fits the mold.
Almost from the beginning, Dallasites came together over violence. The summer of 1860 — just six years after the city’s founding — witnessed dozens of North Texans, both black and white, executed as rumor spread that a slave rebellion was in the works. After a series of unexplained fires in Denton, Pilot Point and Dallas, many of North Texas’s white citizens turned to violence to protect the racial order.
Charles Pryor, the editor of the Dallas Herald, was convinced those fires were the harbinger of an all-out race war: “Certain negroes,” Pryor wrote, alongside their white abolitionist allies, plotted “to devastate, with fire and assassination, the whole of Northern Texas.” With little evidence, vigilantes, with the tacit support of law enforcement, turned to the indiscriminate slaughter of their neighbors, killing upwards of 100 people.
Among those hanged that summer was the abolitionist Methodist preacher Arthur Bewley. In July of 1860, Bewley left North Texas fearing for his life. The preacher’s antislavery message won him few friends in a slave state. A posse out for blood caught up with the preacher in Missouri. Upon his forced return to North Texas, Bewley was executed in Fort Worth and buried in a shallow grave. Week’s after his death, Bewley’s body was exhumed, his remaining flesh cut from the bone, and put on public display. The preacher’s corpse no doubt stood as a grisly reminder of what awaited those who dared question the established order.
Another gruesome example of public violence came in 1910. That year, Allen Brooks — a 65-year-old African-American Dallasite — was accused of the kidnapping and attempted rape of a white child. The accusation rested on hastily assembled evidence, but before the case went to trial a frenzied mob took matters into its own hands.
On the morning of the arraignment, the mob overpowered sheriff’s deputies at the old courthouse charged with Brooks’ protection. The white crowd tied a noose around Brooks’s neck in order to pull the man out of a second story window. Falling head first, Brooks likely died on impact. Still, the mob continued to beat and stab Brooks as his body was dragged to the intersection of Main and Akard. There, these racists hanged Brooks’s lifeless body from a telephone pole near a ceremonial arch built for a national meeting of the Elks Club held in 1908.
As many as 5,000 Dallasites eagerly watched this public demonstration of violence. Later, postcards bearing images of the hanging circulated as souvenirs of the day. One bore the inscription of a witness: “This is a token of a great day we had in Dallas.”
Conservative Dallasites have not used public demonstrations of violence just to police the color line. Any threats to the established order were often met with violence. In the midst of the Great Depression, that threat was unionized labor. In the summer of 1937, socialist organizers George Lambert and Herb Harris hoped the working men and women of Dallas would be more receptive to their message as the depression seemed to indicate the capitalist system was faltering. They were not met with open arms.
At a public screening of the socialist film Millions of Us, anti-union goons attacked the organizers, screaming “Get the goddamn Communists. We don’t want any reds in Dallas!” Lambert was beaten until he lost consciousness. Harris was beaten before the assailants tarred and feathered him. The attackers dumped his body behind the offices of the Dallas Morning News. The next day, pictures of Harris’ abuse ran on the front page — no doubt a warning to any other would-be labor organizers.
While the attack seemed random, or maybe just proof of Dallasites’ natural revulsion to organized labor, it later became clear that the goons were hired by officials at the Ford Motor Company’s East Dallas plant. Yet again, Dallasites in power used public violence to maintain their sense of order — just as they would when bombing South Dallas neighborhoods in and around 1950 as an intimidation tactic meant to scare black families out of moving into the neighborhood or, later, voicing their frustrations over their treatment (and sometimes lack thereof) even at the voting booth.
Even Texas’ favorite son couldn’t escape the ire of a Dallas crowd. In 1960, then-vice presidential candidate Lyndon B. Johnson visited Dallas just days before the election. As he made his way to the Adolphus Hotel to give a speech, he was met by a crowd of Dallas-area ladies organized by Bruce Alger — the first Republican congressman from Dallas since Reconstruction. The crowd — dubbed the “Mink Coat Mob” — assailed LBJ while holding signs with slogans like “Texas Traitor” and “Judas Johnson.” It seemed like LBJ and the Democratic Party’s growing liberalism was too much for conservatives in Dallas. Although JFK and LBJ won Texas — Nixon blamed the loss on “that asshole congressman” — this incident once again showed Dallasites specifically turning to violence to oppose what they saw as threats to the status quo.
Of course, when we think about public violence in this city, two events stand out above the rest — the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy and the 2016 DPD shootings following police brutality protests in Downtown Dallas. To be fair, these events don’t really fit the established pattern for public violence in this city. After all, their perpetrators weren’t committed to the city’s established power; instead, these murderers individually envisioned different paths for the city and the nation. But perhaps this goes to show how public displays of violence at large have become more the rule than the exception for the city.
Every time, in the aftermath of these events — and these are just a handful of the higher-profile ones; we haven’t even mentioned the damage done in the wake of the 1973 murder of 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez at the hands of a Dallas cop or discussed the violence seen during the 1984 Republican National Convention riots — the most privileged among us in this city are always left with a sense of surprise: How can this happen here?
But the past shows that public violence is a constitutive part of this city’s history — especially when City Hall and Citizens Council types feel their power and position threatened.
This past weekend’s events fit this pattern. They shouldn’t be viewed with surprise or seen as an aberration. As has happened throughout Dallas’ history, peaceful protests demanding systemic reform were met by stubborn city leaders and overly aggressive policing that set the stage for strife and violence.
Mayor Johnson and other Dallasites saying that “this isn’t who we are” or that “Dallas deserves better” are willingly ignoring history. They are creating a false narrative that makes change impossible — because this is who Dallasites are, and this is what city’s past has reaped.
So long as we continue to think about our city and its past in idealized terms, we will be unable to confront the vile realities that need to be reformed in order to make our city more inclusive, more equitable and more just.
Until Dallas is honest about its history, it will be damn hard to change anything about its future.
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