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Remembering the Lee Park Massacre

Fifty years ago, hippies and cops clashed in Dallas.
By Tim Rogers |

Kirby Warnock is a filmmaker, writer, and former editor of Buddy magazine. You’ve got way too much time on your hands right now, so you should pay $5 to watch his documentary titled When Dallas Rocked. It’s all about the music scene in Dallas in the 1970s, and it features interviews with Angus Wynne, Jon Dillon, John Rody, Jimmie Vaughan, Vicki Wade, Ira Lipson, and others.

Today, Kirby brings us a story from 50 years ago, when a riot broke out at Lee Park (now Turtle Creek Park). Dig in:


By Kirby Warnock

On April 12, 1970, Dallas police arrested several dozen hippies for a “riot” at Dallas’ Lee Park. The fracas started on a Sunday afternoon, when a crowd of about 3,000 young people dressed in tie-dyed t-shirts and bell bottoms (dubbed “hippies” by the Dallas Morning News and Times Herald) gathered to listen to music played by several local rock musicians who had started performing there on Sundays.

“I was between bands, and there it was a regular Sunday afternoon thing for me, Stevie, Doyle Bramhall, and Phil Campbell to go over and set up on the steps of Arlington Hall,” recalls Jimmie Vaughan. “We would go over there and sign up to play with some guy running the show. We weren’t getting paid, but it was about the only gig in town at the time and we were trying to keep our chops up.”

It was a warm spring day, with some of the first good weather in Dallas in a while. The crowd of young people was throwing Frisbees, smoking pot, dancing, and meeting up with the opposite sex. The bands had been playing for about an hour when a few people decided to take a swim in Turtle Creek. (Just the idea of swimming in that stagnant body of water should be enough to question their sanity.) The Dallas Police officers on hand for crowd control immediately arrested the swimmers, citing a Dallas city ordinance that forbade swimming in any inland bodies of water. As the cops were handcuffing the young offenders, the crowd didn’t take too kindly to what they perceived as the police’s rough treatment of their fellow hippies. Soon a few dozen of them surrounded the officers, shouting at them, while a few tossed bottles.

The situation quickly spiraled out of control. The crowd turned over a police car. The police called for backup, and, within a few minutes, dozens of Dallas police descended upon Lee Park. They starting arresting young people, as well as beating several of the offenders. Among them was Stoney Burns (aka Brent LaSalle Stein), the publisher of Dallas’ infamous “underground” newspaper Dallas Notes.

Stoney was already well-known to the police and the establishment that ran Dallas in 1970. He had been arrested several times for “crimes,” mainly for using profanity and nude photos in the Dallas Notes, and for handing out copies of the newspaper on the SMU campus. When the police recognized him, they threw him to the ground and beat him mercilessly. Dallas Morning News photographer Jerome Sims captured the moment in a photo that became an iconic image for what many call police brutality or excessive force.

Burns and several other hippies were arrested and charged with felony crimes, ranging from “interfering with a police officer” to “inciting a riot.” Stoney was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison, which his lawyer immediately appealed. Years later he remarked that the only thing he was guilty of was “hitting a police officer in the knee with my groin.”

A young SMU law student named Jim Mattox was driving by Lee Park the afternoon of the riot. He was pulled from his car by the police and beaten. Infuriated at his treatment, Mattox offered to defend several of the arrested youths at no charge. Years later, Mattox would serve several terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and run for the Democratic nomination for governor against Ann Richards.

Stoney Burns, out on appeal for his Lee Park conviction, launched a new underground newspaper called the Iconoclast, named after William Cowper Brann’s Waco newspaper that regularly published embarrassing articles about Baylor University and the Southern Baptists. On March 3, 1971, Dallas police arrested Stoney for possession of “less than one tenth of an ounce” of marijuana. He was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years and one day in Huntsville. (The judge added the one day so Burns would not become eligible for parole.)

The Lee Park massacre is cited by many Dallas musicians as one of the reasons they moved to Austin. “We mainly wanted to get the hell out of Dallas,” says William Williams. Jimmie Vaughan, his little brother Stevie Ray, Doyle Bramhall, and Fort Worth’s Lou Ann Barton all soon moved to Austin to launch the blues scene that helped put the town on the map as “the live music capital of Texas.”

Stoney eventually received a commuted sentence for the pot conviction from Gov. Dolph Briscoe, then went on to publish Buddy magazine, “the original Texas music magazine,” which continues to publish to this day. He died on April 28th, 2011, from a heart attack.

The Dallas Observer came in to fill the gap left by the demise of the Iconoclast, covering local politics, arts, and the goings on at Dallas City Hall.

Today Lee Park is no longer a hangout for hippies, free love, and rock and roll. It’s a center of the Dallas LGBT community. The Dallas City Council removed the huge statue that once honored Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general and the park’s namesake. It is now Turtle Creek Park. Save for Arlington Hall and the steps where the musicians once performed for free on Sunday afternoons, no traces remain of the infamous Lee Park massacre.

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