John Wiley Price is undeniably handsome, polished, suave, articulate, well-read, and, when he chooses to be, incredibly charming. It wasn’t just Dave Fox who was talking about grooming Price to be the first African-American mayor of Dallas. “John has many of the elements that a natural leader would need to unite Dallas back together again,” says another prominent Republican who privately backed the idea of Price for mayor.

But today that man and many other former Price allies are convinced that Price is not the man for the job. They fear that he is hampered by a number of tragic flaws.

Price’s support among city leaders began unraveling last June, at the start of a period known around the courthouse as “The Days of Rage.” At the time, District Attorney John Vance was clearly determined to slap Price with a felony for painting over some liquor and tobacco billboard ads in South Dallas. Price had been prepared for a misdemeanor charge to be filed against him, he says, but he was shocked when Vance pursued the felony. Though the felony charge never materialized, the incident triggered a rage in Price that remains today.

“It just goes through me,” he says. “It just enrages me. I don’t know—I’ve tried to contain it. I can’t. And I know I’m vulnerable with that because you can mention that name [Vance], and I go nuts. He just epitomizes what I think of Dallas and those good ol’ boys. I mean, he is it. Even more so than Henry Wade chewing tobacco, or chewing that cigar, or whatever. I mean, even more so than that. He’s racist to the core.”

In many ways, say people close to him, every stunt Price has pulled since the billboard incident has seemed to be part of some personal crusade to bait Vance—to push Vance into going after him to spark a race riot in his name. That could make Price a hero in the minority community for many years to come.

“The best explanation I can come up with,” says one friend, “is that I don’t think Price has a violent bone in his body. If there’s anything that would satisfy John, it’s not for the revolution to break out and for him to have the opportunity to kill someone, but for him to be killed. That’s the one thing that would satisfy him—martyrdom.”

In his most private moments, Dave Fox has similar fears. How else to explain this year of confrontation? “This is really out of his character,” Fox says. “And he can do so much for the community—black and white. It may be too late. He may get his wish, if he has a death wish. He says he doesn’t. But if that’s true, then what is this?”

Even African-Americans are floating the theory. “John would like nothing better than for a crazed white person to come bursting out of a crowd one day and shoot him,” says a former elected official. “And then we could name a bridge after him and folks down in South Dallas would be in awe of him forever.”

Price does talk a lot since The Days of Rage about dying. He frequently quotes Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X on the subject. He cherishes a framed photo montage made for him by a friend of some of the most famous African-American martyrs. Eerily, his own picture is included among them.

“I guess I try to move somebody to some action,” be says. “It’s just that I believe it. I believe it so much that if it means I’ve got to die for it, I believe it. Life doesn’t mean anything if you stay comfortable. It just really doesn’t. I mean, I wouldn’t make it a second in South Africa. I really wouldn’t.”

He says he’s been in the public eye this year only for one reason: There’s an awful lot to do. “I’m a racer,” he says. “I just don’t know how much time I’ve got, and I’ve got to cram.”

His supporters, though, are beginning to wish he’d slow down. “I really don’t have a quarrel with his heart,” says Ron Kirk, an African-American lawyer with Johnson & Gibbs. “I know that he means well, and perhaps what we’re seeing is burnout—that he may have lost a little bit of perspective because he is frustrated that he hasn’t seen more progress, and that led him down a path that obviously a lot of us in the community feel uncomfortable with. To me, hearing anybody advocate change by violence in 1990 in America is the height of lunacy, of irresponsibility.”

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