When Dallas Times Herald columnist Jim Schutze signed a contract with Taylor Publishing Company for a book on Dallas race relations, he had no inkling of the furor that would follow. “I guess I assumed the problem would be finding enough people who were even interested in the city’s history to read the book,” says Schutze. “It never occurred to me that the book itself could be considered explosive.”
But Schutze figured wrong. A year ago, while The Accommodation was being edited, Schutze says he heard that Taylor might drop the book because of its negative portrayals of Dallas stalwarts like John Stemmons, Robert Folsom, and others who, Schutze believes, fostered an atmosphere of “paternalism ” that inhibited progress toward mature race relations.
In September, Taylor announced it would not publish the book. Taylor officials say the decision was based on poor advance sales of the book; Schutze believes that Taylor overreacted to a few Dallas leaders who wanted the book dropped.
Whatever the reason, Taylor’s decision to drop the book focused national attention on Schutze’s story. The New York Times quoted Taylor’s editor in charge of The Accommodation, Robert Frese, assaying, “It’s so image-conscious here, you can’t say anything negative.” Gregory Curtis, editor of Texas Monthly, followed by positing a convoluted theory that accused Schutze and his literary agent of creating the controversy to enhance interest-and sales-in what Curtis saw as a sleepy retrospective.
As you will discover in reading this excerpt from The Accommodation, which was published last month by Citadel Press of New York, the book is anything but a somnolent reminiscence of Dallas days gone by. It traces race relations and ethnic politics in Dallas from the period of slavery to the present in an account that is part history (that is, a recounting of facts) and part social critique (that is, opinion).
The book maintains that slavery was an even more cruel institution in North Texas than it had been in the Old South. Chapters on Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan argue that the injustices of slavery were transported into the present by an unbroken tradition of violence against blacks.
The main focus of the book, however, is the period from 1950 to 1970. The chapters presented here deal with a series of dynamite bombings of black homes in South Dallas, which in 1950 was still mainly white. A handful of black families, armed with savings and mustering-out money from service in World War II, had been able to afford new homes in white neighborhoods. The violence that greeted their arrival there-and the reaction it provoked in the city’s leadership-is a chapter of Dallas history that is neither widely remembered nor proudly told.
Why rehash an ugly episode that’s been buried for over twenty-five years? Not to add fuel to the embers of racism that still flicker. And not to measure a power structure in hindsight by the standards of an Eighties post-civil rights consciousness. But for many reasons: one, to better understand why some blacks continue to distrust the police. For another, to fathom why the black community produces political leaders who seem to aim more at confrontation than consensus. And to help us comprehend the legacy of frustration and fury that is powerfully manifest in the statistics of black poverty and crime.
Any chapter of history-but especially a painful, sensitive one-gets filtered through the eyes of the historian. Jim Schutze’s slant on urban politics, which has consistently enraged or enlightened his newspaper readers depending on their position to the left or right of the ideological center line, renders this view of Dallas, 1950, in sharp, often angry terms. No doubt there are those who would cast the chaotic period following the South Dallas bombings in a distinctly different light. The fact that Dallas moved through the Sixties without experiencing the race riots that occurred in communities like Watts and Newark has become a proud element of the Dallas legend.
Still, the bombings did occur. “We cannot escape history,” Abraham Lincoln once declared. “The fiery trail through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the last generation.” We offer this excerpt, and the disturbing discourse it may provoke, as simply a chapter in Dallas’s history that has seldom been retold.
-Ruth Miller Fitzgibbons
The first explosion came in early February 1950, at night, at the home of Horace Bonner, who had bought a house just a few blocks outside a black neighborhood near Exline Park. Bonner, fifty-seven, who worked for a printing company, was asleep inside. Also in the house were his wife and mother-in-law.
A car slipped up to the front of the house, an arm reached out through a rolled-down window and tossed out an expertly made bomb of dynamite in gelatin form, of the type then commonly used in the oil fields. The bomb looped up lazily from the street, spinning slowly through the air and flopping down next to the house where it lay, its serpentine sixteen-inch fuse flickering red in the night.
The sleep of the Bonner family turned white and roared. In a split second, the front of their beautiful new home, the pride of their lives, the achievement of generations, was raked and mauled and left in steaming rubble and char. Miraculously, the Bonners themselves all escaped physical injury.
What followed was an interesting exercise in the morality of the time. Mayor Wallace Savage, a liberal by the standard of his day, took the serious political risk of insisting that the housing needs of the poorest of the city’s poor black people be met with public funds. But the bombing of the Bonner family posed a different dilemma-they were not poor blacks who could be herded into concentrations, but black people who had as much money as white people, who could afford to buy and own homes. At the bottom of the bombings. Savage saw not evil or maliciousness but the predictable consequences of a breakdown in apartheid. What was needed, he said, was more segregated housing for these inconveniently solvent black families.
“Actually, neither the man who threw the bomb nor the Negro who moved into a white neighborhood is primarily responsible,” Savage said. “The incident was a symptom of a serious condition in Dallas that must be remedied.. .There has been practically no Negro housing built in Dallas since the war. Negroes are living two, three, and four families in small dwellings, and it is impossible to keep them from overflowing into white areas unless places are provided for them.”
More segregated housing for middle-class African-Americans was the answer, and the race was on, from that moment, to devise just such a safety valve for the black housing crisis. The business leaders of the city began dividing sharply over the roles that should be played by the public and private sectors. Finding a site for the blacks that would not be offensive to white people was a major consideration, too.
But the bigshots downtown could talk and talk about building new black neighborhoods: none of the talk convinced the white people of South Dallas that their community was not the intended goat. While white people with money were able to flee to the new developments farther north, the working class and the strapped middle class were stuck where they were, directly in the path of the black advance.
By August, five more black-owned houses had been bombed. No one had been killed or injured, but that was due only to random good luck. The terror among the black families that had ventured onto white turf had become thick and tangible, like illness, but they kept buying houses. Forty extra police officers were assigned to the small area where most of the bombings were taking place, patrolling each house every five minutes. The bombings not only continued but grew more bold.
Reporters cornered Dallas Police Chief Carl Hansson and put the question to him directly: “Do you know who is responsible for or who has actually perpetrated the bombings in South Dallas?”
Hansson said: “Yes.” But he refused to say more, lending force to the already prevalent notion that the authorities knew who was behind the bombings and had no intention of stopping them. Instead, the police response seemed to be directed more and more against black people. The greater fear of the police was always black retaliation, not white aggression, and, as the bombing terror grew thicker and more sickening, the police redoubled efforts to keep the black community motionless. In the middle of the bombing crisis, the Dallas police shot and killed Ray Butler, a black man, in South Dallas after beating him in handcuffs, according to witnesses. The Rev. Stacy Adams, a black clergyman, told the city council and Mayor Savage: “It is insultingly obvious to see the mayor of our fair city playing politics and actually endeavoring to bury the Butler case as was the infamous bombing of Negro homes in South Dallas.”
Even when provoked by death or maiming, all black anger was instantly interpreted, even by “liberals” of the period, as evidence of communist sympathy. Savage leapt on Adams’s political association with Henry Wallace, a member of the original FDR cabinet, the second-generation editor of a farm journal, and the world’s foremost authority on hybrid corn, and on Adams’s association with Sam Barbaria, a lawyer who had once defended an accused communist before a proceeding of the Bureau of Immigration. “Left-wingers such as Henry Wallaceite Stacy Adams and communist defender Sam Barbaria have a plan,” Savage said. “The plan is to gain control of Negro votes by charges such as these, that the police abuse Negroes.” In response to Adams’s demand that he be allowed to appear before the grand jury, Henry Wade, the district attorney, said Adams had a right to appear, if he insisted, but. Wade said, “I do not feel like the grand jury cares to waste time with instigators of race trouble and communist sympathizers who know nothing about the facts of the case.”
Two months later, the bombers attacked with a fury that struck the city dumb. On one night in late June 1951, they blew up four black-owned buildings with huge charges of dynamite. The blasts were heard all over Dallas. Incredibly, once again no one was injured in the bombings, but, as the terror continued, it became clear that this good fortune could not last forever.
A week after the June blasts, Morris Williams was leaving the house where he lived with his aunt and uncle and four other relatives at 2311 Southland when he found an enormous bomb on the ground, a dud thrown from a car the night before. Dallas Police Inspector Dal Loe said it was larger by far than the bombs that had been used so far and would have done extensive damage. Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Jennings, owners of the house, had bought it after being forced to move from their house in East Dallas, condemned to make way for one of the first installments of the new public housing construction under way at the time.
And now people like the Jennings family were at war. White people were trying to kill them. All around them was the post-war American dream of babies, home, and peace. For $1.99 that summer, Ward’s Cut-Rate drugs was selling lawn chairs on which a middle-class family could sit outside and enjoy their lawn just as if they were at a resort. On the inside, homes had just been invaded by television, showing Dallas viewers a special test pattern to help them focus in their sets between the hours of 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. The ads in the morning papers said that, sooner or later, everybody falls in love with a Packard. And someone had just tried to maim and kill Mrs. Jen-nings’s family and destroy her home.
Standing in her new South Dallas house, which was nearly blown into a pile of splinters and blood the night before, Mrs. Jennings didn’t know what to do. “I just don’t want any trouble with anyone,” she said. “I’ll move out of here tomorrow, if someone will just find me a place to go to. I had to move once. I guess I can do it again.”
She said when she left her eight-room house on Troy Street in East Dallas she had been forced to take $6,250 for it, She looked around the new house. “This six-room house cost me $7,500. So I lost $1,250 there. I can’t go on paying and paying.”
By now, the Dallas City Council was flailing in earnest, if clumsily, for help. In July, the council made a point of announcing that it had asked for help from the FBI. At that time, of course, the FBI did not yet have the jurisdiction given it by the civil rights legislation of the Sixties, but that was hardly the point anyway. At least a part of the reason for the request was an attempt to thrust this nasty racial business back in the lap of the federal government, where white Dallas believed the blame lay in the first place.
When a group of white homeowners appeared before the council to ask it to bar a black church from building a tabernacle at Frank and Lagow streets, South Dallas Councilman Bernard Hemphill Jr. said the council’s hands were tied and that decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court had nullified even the sacred racial deed restrictions in which whites had placed such faith.
“I would like to help all of you, but this council is bound by the law the Supreme Court says we must go by. Otherwise we would wind up in federal court.”
When J.B. Adoue Jr., the new mayor of Dallas, told the audience that the people of Highland Park enjoyed no more protection from the black advance than the people of South Dallas, he was greeted by expressions of disbelief. The Rev. Elner Tenery, pastor of Friendship Baptist Church at 4106 Frank and leader of the citizen delegation, sounded the muted horn of white violence: “I pray that it does not lead to bloodshed,” he said. “I pray for everyone to go into it spiritually.”
It was in 1950, precisely when the bombings intervened, that the leadership of the new Dallas was coming to the point of consolidating its grandest plans for the future. In the years ahead, new makers of wealth in the technical and electronics industry would come to Dallas and exert distinctly different influences, but in 1950 the native founders of the new Dallas had plans that turned mainly on three considerations: 1) dam building, 2) transportation, and 3) slum clearance. The object was to use public works projects to create value in the near-worthless flood plain of the Trinity River-land where the John Stemmons Freeway runs now, land occupied now by John Stem-mons’s vastly profitable Trinity River Industrial District project and the wholesale warehouses and display barns of Trammell Crow, land that is still the object of the establishment’s most concerted public works strategies. One complication at the time was that a good deal of this land, because it was worthless, subject to flooding, and completely unimproved, was occupied by the city’s African-American exiles, people who were allowed to crouch in the forest and beg for scraps but never to approach the camp-fire with intent to stay.
West Dallas, just outside the corporate limits and legal responsibility of the city, was an especially awful sink. Disease and infant mortality rates were appalling; there was no real protection of law and only the most rudimentary type of education. Of the 5,730 dwellings in West Dallas, 5,200 were served by outhouses, 5,400 had no provision for bathing, and 4,880 had no running water at all, Water was hauled in, sold at 50 cents a barrel, and allowed to stand until drunk. All of these were conditions under which African-American people had been suffered to live since the beginning of urbanization after World War I.
It so happened, however, that in 1950 and ’51, the eyes of Dallas were turning toward these awful slums on the river bottom, places that had been invisible for so long, for other reasons. Through the construction of enormous dams, reservoirs, and levees, along with massive sewer and water projects, it would be possible to reclaim this land from nature and, not incidentally, from the black people who lived on it, and “do something with it.” But the scheme would require massive resort to two things that were supposed to be utterly alien to the Dallas do-it-yourself philosophy-public seizure of private property, and money siphoned from the federal government.
To this day, Dallas maintains steadfastly that it never accepted federal money until it was forced to do so in the Sixties. A week after the announcement of his retirement in 1985, Alex Bickley, executive director of the Dallas Citizens Council, curate to the business establishment and spokesman for the oligarchy in matters of dogma, sat at an empty table in the council’s offices and said: “I went to Detroit right after their riot [in 1967]. Here was a city that was more dependent on the federal government to solve its problems than it was on itself.”
Bickley shook his head with real disgust. “That to me was just unbelievable. We never did things that way here. You take care of your own problems! If you go back through your history, you’ll find they never took federal money here until 1967 or so when they bought the bus system out.”
The story is true, if it is construed to refer only to the municipal government of Dallas. But Texas law encourages the creation of small free-floating units of government to support hospitals, flood districts, and other functions that would fell under the umbrellas of cities and counties in other states. When these units of government are taken into account, especially the flood-control districts, Dallas’s account of its own incredibly tenacious federal virginity wears thin.
Wearing other hats, the men who built the city of Dallas not only took federal money: they begged for it. And they used tons of it to create the very wealth that now dominates the city. In 1951, John Stemmons was right up there in Washington with the best of them, holding out his hands to the House Appropriations Committee and doing his best imitation of the man who swears he’s really going to spend the dime on coffee. And, of course, why shouldn’t he have been? The federal government was slopping the hogs then, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars out across the countryside in slum clearance money, flood-control appropriations, and highway funds. In spite of the little fibs it tells about itself now, Dallas didn’t turn down anything from Washington.
Stemmons and an entire delegation of Dallas business leaders told the appropriations committee they really needed that additional $7.5 million the committee was considering adding to the already enormous reservoir projects under way along the Trinity watershed. Stemmons told them the money would be of great benefit to the miserable black settlements on the Trinity at present, and he also mentioned it would help to “give Dallas as fine a flood-control system as any in the United States.”
Indeed. The plan, when it was first unveiled in June of 1950 by the Dallas Chamber of Commerce, was directly hinged on federally sponsored flood control as its centerpiece. The plan was to 1) annex West Dallas, 2) pressure the U.S. Corps of Engineers to protect the area from flooding, 3) move the black residents to a concentration of public housing, and 4) resell the neatly dried out, plumbed, and de-Africanized land to private parties for development.
The forced removal of large black populations was going on in cities all over the country under new federal legislation and rulings of the courts. For the first time in American history, it was legal for government to take private property away from American citizens by force and sell it to other private citizens. And, what was more, the federal government was willing to bankroll the whole operation. Called “slum clearance” in public, it was called “Negro removal” when winking whites gathered by themselves. Always accompanied by great hand-wringing over conditions in the slums, the basic operating premise, nevertheless, was that the removal and concentration of African-Americans in government-run urban camps, or “projects” as Americans preferred to call them, was in and of itself a positive social good of such obvious benefit that it merited bending the concept of private property a bit. Not unrelated morally to the black homelands policies of South Africa today, the program is still a major fact of life all over America and is responsible for the fact that hundreds of thousands of black people in America, and tens of thousands in Dallas, have no experience of private property whatsoever.
In spite of the lure of all that new land, which would be raw and virginal once the blacks were removed and the levees built, some Dallas leaders balked at the use of government force to take private property, even if some of the property taken was promised for use in the provision of new homes for blacks. The president of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce at the time, John W. Carpenter (the land baron who was already planning to build an entire new city called Las Colinas on truly virgin land, his own empty acres in the rolling hills northwest of Dallas), stood up at the chamber of commerce meeting in 1950 where this gigantic grab was unveiled and spoke of principle: “I personally don’t think it’s right to condemn homesteads and resell them again,” he said. “There is plenty of land outside Dallas where homes can be built without taking them from people who now own them, some of whom have spent a lifetime in getting possession .. .Why did Dallas not take in West Dallas years ago, when building restrictions could have prevented many of the poorly built homes that are supposed to be present now? Dallas should not remedy its own mistakes by taking by force a home away from the man who owns it. If I were one of the people who had a home, even one of the so-called shotgun variety, I would be heartbroken if it were taken away from me by force.”
But Carpenter was not to have the day. And after all, he had all the land he could possibly use on his family ranch north of town. For the people looking for land near downtown, the heady allure of all that river bottom and all the federal juice that went with it was too strong. Joseph Ross, chairman of the Dallas Council of Social Agencies, urged that Carpenter look at the advantages, that the Mill Creek and West Dallas slums could be cleaned up and the land used for some more positive and productive purpose (he suggested parking lots, to improve the value of downtown property), and, finally, he made the pitch that people were making in towns like Dallas all over America at the time: he reminded his fellow pillars of the community that there was $25 million in federal slum-clearance money to be had in the deal, money that would just go somewhere else if Dallas didn’t nab it. And the federal government was dumping in $79 million in flood-control money alone, to say nothing of odds and ends like the $700,000 Dallas would be able to borrow from Washington to extend the West Bank interceptor sewer to the area, an amount that the Dallas Housing Authority would have to repay, not the city.
All at once, a very large pot had appeared on the table, and Dallas needed to be especially careful how it played its hand. Quite without the supposed benefits of removing the black people from their property, the flood-control aspects of the plan alone would be enough to create vast wealth, some of it already rolling in. By the end of 1951. John Stemmons’s Trinity River Industrial District, an empty wasteland five years earlier, was home to 320 brand-new industrial and warehousing buildings, with forty more under construction. Some 200 additional firms had purchased land in the district and were weighing their options, trying to decide to build or not to build. Clearly, the cookie jar was only beginning to disgorge its contents.
All of it turned on being able to do something with the black people. Some would be housed in the new government-run concentrations. But where would the rest go, especially those who could afford to rent, perhaps even afford to buy? The use of eminent domain and terror to chip away at black territory in the past already had produced enormous density in the existing stums. What effect would eliminating the largest and deepest of the city’s slums have?
Even before the bombings started, a desultory search for new black homelands had begun. A number of sites were discussed, always by the white leadership, often without any consultation at all with African-Americans. After Roland Pelt, a former member of the city council, had proposed that he. personally, would solve the problem by developing a major black homesite near Harry Hines Boulevard, black spokesmen were forced to inject caution, suggesting that “black homeowners would hesitate to buy in a site that was subject to regular and massive flooding.”
If all of it could be juggled properly, and if everyone stayed calm and didn’t drop his cards to the floor, this shaky hand could be played. Dallas would land the enormous infusion of federal money, the dams and the levees would be built, the blacks removed, the freeways built, and the land replatted for development. But everything depended on precision and in no small part on not alarming every leftover Roosevelt liberal on the map about what Dallas’s intentions were toward the African-Americans.
Needless to say, then, the bombings in South Dallas had come at the worst possible moment. The impulse to get to the bottom of them and clean them up, to stop the noise, and, especially, to stop the news of them from spreading became a mission with more than mere ethical urgency.
It would be an entirely wrong and unfair construction of things to suggesi that the only interest the white power structure in Dallas had in mitigating conditions in the black slums was motivated by land greed. The newspapers of the period were full of genuinely heart-rending descriptions of the slums, and it was clear that a wing of the power structure was morally repelled by the viciously deprived conditions there. But, from the black point of view, it often seemed as if the white people were shoving the blacks back and forth across the board, from place to place, from the terrain of one white class to the terrain of another, and it was only a question of which class had more power in the end. The white people who were not rich and who lived in South Dallas resorted to KKK-stylc savagery when they saw (he new black middle class headed their way. They fell back on habits that dated from the dark days after the Civil War. But, then again, they had only bombs and terror with which to work their evil against the Africans. They didn’t have banks and delegations to Washington to do their work for them.
Somewhere in all the complex welter of self-interest and principle, greed and compassion that drove the white leadership of Dallas forward, there was one quality that may well have been its saving grace-an ability to see the big picture. From their towers at the center of Oz, from their offices and private clubs, they could look out and sec the great green band of the river bottom winding down from the north and sweeping past downtown, and. beyond it. they could see the pleasant and tidy middle- and working-class neighborhoods of South Dallas. They could add it all up. The places where African-Americans were allowed to live had been here, and there, and there, and now they were only there, and the great plan for the river bottom was cutting even that ground from beneath them. It would have been ideal, of course, if the nonwealthy white neighborhoods of the city’s southern tier somehow could have moved out of the way or budged or submitted quietly. But. as soon as the bombings began again, it was clear that things were not going to be solved so neatly.
From their windows, the titans of Dallas saw a city that (hey held in their own hearts as if it were a thing they had molded with their own hands from the clay of the Trinity River bottoms. Something was wrong. Their city was pained, and they would reach down with their huge hands and lift out the pain.
When black leaders told the Dallas Citizens Council they would not be responsible for what happened if the South Dallas bombings did not stop, the citizens council took decisive steps. A so-called “blue ribbon grand jury” was formed, consisting entirely of members of the citizens council, in effect giving the private group a kind of police power. An investigation, pushed along by a parallel Texas Rangers investigation, uncovered a shocking plot, and the grand jury balked at releasing its findings.
The North Dallas oligarchy certainly could have hauled in a couple of out-of-control rednecks, put them on the front page, tossed them in prison, and called it a day’s work, if that had been the game.
It had not been difficult to bring in the actual bombers, once the authorities decided to do so. The first two bombers arrested in the plot-a forty-two-year-old Dallas pants presser (and sometimes bootlegger) named Claude Thomas Wright and his half-brother, a Greenville farmer named Arthur Eugene Young-quickly admitted their roles and implicated others.
But. acting on information from Wright, the Texas Rangers obtained subpoenas for the records of South Dallas Bank and Trust, looking for checks made out to Wright by two white South Dallas community associations, And all of a sudden, this business was of an entirely different scale and order. What the grand jury was beginning to find was evidence of massive and organized white complicity-not the work of a bunch of ex-bootleggers, but the complicity of civic activists, churchgoers, the trunk of the body politic. Ironically, the unusual degree of control the business oligarchy had achieved over that body had made the business of the bombings all the more uncomfortable for the oligarchs. In the normal American democratic arrangement, leadership at least can wriggle away from the worst sins of its subjects by claiming to have no control over | them. The one thing the leadership in Dallas could not claim was lack of control.
But, the oligarchy had saddled itself with the entire responsibility for cleaning things up when things got messy. In this specific instance, by forming a special blue ribbon grand jury, they had caused everyone to expect something dramatic. The Saturday after the reporters had picked up signs of a squabble, on the day when the delayed report was finally to be made public, the community waited on the edge of its chair. Just how far could these business titans push this affair? Sure, Dallas was a tractable town and these were the people who ran it. But they were confronting a force in the white middle and working classes that seemed to well up into something more huge and terrifying every time they prodded it. On the one hand, something had to be done, or the terror would bulge and rip the town apart. The African-American community would explode and. God forbid, strike back. On (he other hand, the white masses were openly sneering at the chances of poor young Mr. Wade’s ever getting a conviction in a local court. What would the vaunted leadership do? Go to war against its own white people in order to protect black people?
The blue ribbon grand jury’s report released that Saturday conceded that the “plot reached into unbelievable places.” But. of course, everyone already knew that. The question was, what places? Who? Who paid these men to slip in and out of a dense web of police patrols and hurl professionally assembled dynamite bombs against homes where families slept? Did human beings sit in church basements in Dallas and plot the murder of children? What were the answers?
No sooner was the grand jury’s statement made public than it was clear: given the circumstances, the answer was really the most fantastic one anyone possibly could have imagined. There would be no answer. The grand jury would admit that the conspiracy ran deep in the bowels of the city. And then the blue ribbon grand jury would ask to be disbanded.
Sounding distinctly like an attempt to mollify contending factions within the grand jury, the report began by declaring that its work was done, but went on to concede that its work was far from complete. “In asking to be discharged, this grand jury does not intend to imply that all who had a part in these bombings and burnings have been indicted. The plot reached into unbelievable places. The acts of certain persons are well known to this grand jury and to law enforcement officers. They were involved as accomplices by confessions of those who actually did (he bombing and burning.”
The report pointed as directly as it could without slandering the people it had just declined to charge. It said that several of the uncharged conspirators were well known and highly regarded in “their” communities, which meant the white neighborhoods of South Dallas, as distinct from the more affluent white neighborhoods to the north where the grand jurors themselves lived, usually referred to as ’”the” community.
“There was evidence,” the report said, “that lay and religious and community groups, through misguided leadership, entered an action, perhaps unwittingly, that resulted in violence and destruction.”
If the report was indeed an effort to satisfy factions, one faction had wanted it made plain that the failure to bring forth more indictments, to dig to the bottom of the pit, was to be laid at the feet of Henry Wade, the DA. The report took the trouble to inform the public that only bits of additional corroborating evidence were needed to indict more “persons who had a part, in the bombings and burnings.”
It went on to say that: “These persons who apparently participated in the planning, payoffs, and preparation of the bombs were not indicted for the reason that the district attorney and his assistants advised your grand jury that under the laws of this state, they could not be convicted because of insufficient corroborating evidence.”
The grand jury called the bombings “un-Chrislian acts” and closed by urging that the investigation continue. Henry Wade made a statement saying that it would.
The next year, one of two Hispanics among the ten indicted conspirators was brought to the bar in a long and droning trial, in which the prosecution depended entirely on the testimony of neighbors and introduced almost no evidence of the larger conspiracy turned up by the grand jury. During the trial, a parade of prominent South Dallas citizens took the oath and testified to the upstanding character of Pete Garcia, the accused bomber, among them the Rev. John G. Moore, president of the South Dallas Adjustment League. Moore was well known for his efforts to raise money that he said would be used only to buy houses back from black families who had purchased in white areas, not to bomb them. As Moore had told a gathering of angry homeowners at the Reed Avenue Baptist Church, “Talking of bombing them is not going to get them out. We will have to raise the money to buy them out.” His endorsement and the word of others like him in the homeowner movement endowed Garcia with an aura of political legitimacy that obviously did not hurt him.
At the time, Hispanics had not emerged in Dallas as a distinct ethnic minority. They had not yet agreed to become a “race,” in the North-American lexicon of ethnic discrimination. There was Anglo-Saxon bigotry against poor and Indian Mexicans, but middle-class people with Hispanic names were considered to be “white.” Garcia testified that he was a member of the Rev. Moore’s South Dallas Adjustment League. He said one of his duties as a league member had been to help paint “For Whites Only” signs and carry them around to place on the lawns of people who agreed not to sell to African-Americans. He said it was hard work persuading some neighbors to place the “Whites Only” signs on their lawns because they could get more money for their houses from house-hungry black people.
A white neighbor said Garcia had threatened him with a knife when he saw him painting a house that had been built specifically for sale to blacks. Two black real estate agents said Garcia had chased them from the neighborhood when they had attempted to show homes to black families.
Garcia’s defense turned on testimony that he had been chatting with a Dallas police sergeant on his front lawn moments before the bomb he was accused of planting exploded next door to a house. A white neighbor said he saw Garcia walk away from the police sergeant and go to the side of the house next door where the bomb was planted, but a black woman who lived across the street said she thought the white neighbor’s view would have been obstructed by shrubbery. While the testimony as to facts was mixed and unimpressive, the political testimony alleging Garcia’s Tightness of mind and high moral standing was not. By the end of the trial. Garcia looked distinctly less like a villain than a hero. He was acquitted. The original two bombers, Wright and Young, later pleaded guilty to minor charges related to parole violations.
And the matter was at an end. The newspapers noted gratefully that the bombings had ceased and editorialized that it was a healthy outcome for all, that the message had been tendered and received-dynamiting black families was not good for Dallas as a whole-and this in itself was a sufficient conclusion to the affair. That there were still guilty parties at large, that the real nature and shape of the guilt had never been measured in a court of law, that the guilt, far worse than merely personal, was communal and political was not of sufficient concern to merit the risk of further disruption. The bombings had stopped. The matter was closed, not by law but by fiat.
By escaping the necessity even of trying the rest of the indicted bombers, let alone plunging in deeper to investigate the origins of the conspiracy, Henry Wade probably escaped with his political career. Easy for ’’ the patricians and their surrogates on the special grand jury to talk about justice for the bombers: Wade was the one who would have had to stand up in court and try them and stand again later for reelection. From the beginning, the accused bombers themselves had sensed they had the political edge on anyone who wanted to send them to jail from a courtroom in Dallas, Texas.
TODAY, HENRY WADE CONCEDES THAT THE bombers had good reason to be smug. “We tried one of them, and 1 think the jury deliberated about five minutes before they let him go,” he said in 1986. “1 think they [the blue ribbon grand jury] accomplished pretty well what they started out to do, but you have to realize the feelings of whites toward blacks at the time. The members of the blue ribbon grand jury, I think, did a good thing in indicting them. They almost indicted a preacher, but they didn’t have any evidence. Most of the problems have gradually been solved. I think you have blacks pretty well all over town now.”
The lesson in this at the time for the African-American community could not possibly have been more sobering. What it meant was that the business leadership of the city, the most powerful men in Dallas, was able only to hold the beast of organized white Klan-style violence at bay. never able to bring it to the bar. to break it beneath the law. On the one hand, perhaps, the black community had cause to be grateful that the leadership was there and willing to interpose itself between the black community and its white tormentors. On the other, the black community could not avoid noticing that the business leadership’s willingness to become involved had been triggered, not by the early threat to blacks, but only at the end by the threat of chaos in the community at large, a chaos so massive it threatened even the world of white business and white business plans for the future.
The outcome, then, was not a product of law. It was a product of truce and accommodation. It was a social standoff, with the black community arrayed on one side, the South Dallas white community on the other. and the business oligarchs in the middle, threatening here, cajoling there, holding things together with political spit and bailing wire. The peace, as it was, was not rooted in any ultimate appeal to justice. It was rooted in appeals for mercy, appeals to the business community for intercession. It was a peace at the sufferance of the white business leadership and in the interest of commerce.
And the alternative? The African-American community had acquitted itself with a good deal of courage in this affair. In the face of armed and organized terror, black families had continued to move into white neighborhoods and had done what they could to defend themselves and their blood: when the widow heard a bomb thump againsl the side of her house, she raced into the night with her gun and shot to kill. But the black community also could not shut its eyes to the eerie and massive nature of the violence poised against it.
Black people, gathered in the quiet of theirhomes and conferring on what had happened, had to confront this central truth oftheir lives in Dallas, Texas: the white families around them were capable of bandingtogether to murder black families. Neighbors whose children played in adjacent yardswere capable of hurling bombs. White teenagers could take delight in threatening thelives of black adults. And none of this wrongwas wrong enough to bring the machinery ofjustice into full and complete operation. Thelesson to be drawn was that the machinery ofjustice was not strong enough to confront themonster, that the white people could notkeep their own house enough in order, couldnot drive back the demons in their own midstenough to create a true reign of law. Andso instead everyone had to live with whatwas, with reality, the alternative-the accommodation.