50 years ago in Dallas, Part 1

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Keith Shelton, former managing editor of the Denton Record-Chronicle, was political writer of the Dallas Times Herald when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Shelton had been traveling with the presidential party as a member of the press corps during the president’s Texas visit. This is the first of two columns examining what he terms was the hardest day of his life, and perhaps the hardest day of American journalism, Nov. 22, 1963. The columns were originally printed in the Denton Record-Chronicle in November 1983, under the headline “20 years ago in Dallas.”

Police Chief Jesse Curry warned that Dallas police would take immediate action to block any improper conduct during President Kennedy’s visit. The chief, in a statement on Nov. 20, asked citizens to be alert to any misconduct. He said citizens could take preventive action if it became obvious that someone was planning to commit an act harmful or degrading to the president.

“Nothing must occur that is disrespectful or degrading to the president of the United States,” Curry said.

Meanwhile, California was being drained of every long-stemmed yellow rose for table decorations for the Kennedy luncheon at the Trade Mart. Each table was to have a dozen. About 415 dozen were being flown in. Tyler roses were not in season. Roman Catholics were given a dispensation to eat the club steaks that were on the menu. A Thomas symphony organ was flown in from California to play “Hail to the Chief.”

Curry’s admonition was intended for the right-wing extremists of Dallas, some of whom had put Dallas on the world map of embarrassment a month before when Adlai Stevenson, the ambassador to the United Nations and, in the eyes of some Dallasites, a dangerous left-wing extremist, was abused in Dallas.

The night before Stevenson’s speech, former Major Gen. Edwin A. Walker had held a U.S. Day rally in the same auditorium to counter the U.N. Day observance. Walker had attacked the U.N. and Stevenson. Pickets with anti-U.N. signs, including Frank McGehee, leader of the ultra-conservative national Indignation Convention, greeted Stevenson on his arrival at the Auditorium. The Indignation Convention two years earlier had been called to protest the training of Yugoslav pilots at Perrin Air Force Base near Sherman. It propelled McGehee into the spotlight, and he held it until the assassination. His rallies had an evangelical fervor.

Hecklers, including McGehee, interrupted Stevenson’s speech. They walked down the aisles carrying flags turned upside down. There was rhythmic coughing and intermittent laughter from the protesters, all of whom said they had been at Walker’s rally the night before.

A mob of about 100 waited for Stevenson outside the Canton Street exit of the Memorial Auditorium while he received the officers of the League of Women Voters inside. When police moved the ambassador’s car to an exit closer to the stage, the crowd surged with it. Calls of “Communist” and “Traitor” rang out as Stevenson emerged, accompanied by only a handful of policemen.

In addition to the taunts and the surge of the crowd, Stevenson was spat on and hit with a picket sign. A college-age student was arrested in the spitting incident, and a middle-aged woman was arrested in the sign incident, but was immediately released at the request of Stevenson. She told reporters the sign hit Stevenson accidentally after someone shoved her arm.

That was the background of Curry’s concern. There was no thought whatsoever that any physical harm would come to the president, but there was considerable concern that someone would embarrass the president, and thus embarrass Dallas again, by similar heckling.

There had been considerable concern about Kennedy coming to Dallas in the first place. There was no hope that Kennedy could carry Dallas, perhaps the strongest stronghold anywhere for conservative Barry Goldwater. But Kennedy was trying to blunt Goldwater’s drive for the crucial Texas electoral votes in the 1964 election. Dallas had a pride that smarted at the thought of a president, even a left-wing Democrat, going to Texas without visiting Dallas. Lyndon Johnson was vice president, and there were those who insisted Kennedy should come to Dallas. A compromise, of sorts, was worked out. Kennedy would come as president, not as a Democrat, not as a candidate for re-election. The all-powerful Dallas Citizens Council would sponsor the non-partisan visit, along with the graduate research center fathered by J. Erik Jonsson, to give it a pseudo-scientific bent.

Crowds were good, and nothing notable happened in San Antonio on the first stop of the Texas trip, which was to include San Antonio, Houston, Fort Worth and Dallas before ending at the LBJ Ranch near Austin. (It was, however, noted that Sen. Ralph Yarborough and Johnson, the rival patrons for Texas, rode in separate cars.)

Key members of the White House staff were along, as were 68 members of the press. Jack Bell of AP and Merriman Smith of UPI were the senior members. The list also included Robert Pierpoint of CBS and Robert McNeil of NBC (later of the PBS McNeil-Lehrer Report). Lehrer at the time was federal beat reporter for The Times Herald and backup political writer.)

Kennedy’s triumphal entry into Houston pretty much got lost in the aftermath, but it was a triumph. At least a quarter of a million lined the streets to see the young president and First Lady.

Mrs. Ralph Yarborough presented Mrs. Kennedy and other ladies with bouquets of yellow roses, the theme flower which today still resurrects bitter memories.

It was late night when the planes arrived in Fort Worth. Touchdown was at 11:02. Everyone was exhausted. However, there were stories to write, arrangements to be made, things to do. Later that night (or early morning), the text of the president’s breakfast speech was released. Still later, the text of his 12:30 Dallas speech. I filed a story on each speech, then gave a copy of the text of the Dallas speech to Western Union to transmit to Dallas for the three-star. The breakfast speech was in the first edition on Nov. 22. The text of the Dallas speech ran one edition, along with highlights in a “prepared for delivery” format.

In his breakfast speech, Kennedy talked about Fort Worth’s ties to the defense industry, pointing out that he had increased defense spending by 20 percent in three years. It was a throw-away political speech.

The Dallas speech was the biggie. Kennedy made a pitch for his administration, talking about education, defense, foreign aid, space and the economy. He spoke also of “vituperation” and “nonsense.”

“In a world of complex and continuing problems,” he was going to say, “in a world full of frustrations and irritations, American’s leadership must be guided by the light of learning and reason — or else those who confuse rhetoric with reality and the plausible with the possible will gain the popular ascendancy with their seemingly swift and simple solution to every world problem.”

It was not an all-purpose speech he could make anywhere. He knew where he was.

At the breakfast in Fort Worth, Jackie was late. The 740 lucky enough to get inside were relieved when she showed up, wearing the two-piece raspberry wool suit with the navy collar and ascot and the raspberry pillbox hat that were to become painfully familiar to the world within hours.

Flight time to Dallas was 8 minutes, according to my notebook. Liftoff was 11:50 from Carswell Air Force Base. After brief hand shaking and organizing at Love Field, the motorcade started downtown. The crowd between the terminal and Mockingbird Lane were not solid. There were good crowds along Mockingbird. The Coca-Cola sign at Mockingbird and Lemmon said 63 degrees. There was a solid crowd along Lemmon.

“Mr. President. There is still hope in the South,” a sign said.

“Hi, Mr. President,” said a homemade sign held up by some blacks. (My notes say “negroes,” the respectable term in those days.)

“Cops on overpasses,” my notes say.

A sign held up by some teenage girls said, “Please stop and shake our hands.” Kennedy did. There was a group of nuns to greet the Catholic president at Regan Street.

Crowds were fairly solid to Cedar Springs. There were good crowds in front of office buildings on Turtle Creek and Cedar Springs, as the lunch hour approached. On Cedar Springs, a sign said: “I hold you and your blind socialist policies in contempt.” There were balloons and ribbons outside the Democratic Party headquarters on Cedar Springs.

Further down, State Rep. Dick Morgan of Dallas was holding an “Au H20” sign for Goldwater. Someone held up a broom with a sign saying, “to a Goldwater Sweep in ’64.”

The crowds thinned a little toward downtown. They were not as big on Harwood to Ross. After that, however, they were solid. Very heavy on Main. People were hanging out of buildings and onto lamp posts at Akard. A woman had a sign that said, “With Vigah, We’ll Do it Again in ’64,” parodying Kennedy’s Massachusetts accent.

Then my notes say, “12:30. At Triple Underpass. 3-4 Shots? Man pounding ground. Lead car go around underpass. Dealey Plaza.” (The question mark referred to whether they were shots: no one who was there doubts that there were three.)

“That sure will shake up the Secret Service,” I said to Bob Hollingsworth, our White House correspondent who was on the seat next to me on the traveling press bus, thinking it was a backfire. Then immediately we realized they were shots. We had not turned left to go down to the Triple Underpass, so the incline blocked our view of the presidential limousine.

However, our photographer, Bob Jackson, looked up from an open photo car in time to get a picture of the rifle being withdrawn from the School Book Depository window above.

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