Monday, September 25, 2023 Sep 25, 2023
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A changing of the guard, a silent majority, and a noisy game of musical chairs
By Ruth Miller Fitzgibbons |

Consider these bizarre events as this wild and watershed year continues to unfold:

● After months of haggling, the city council finally approved a package of police reforms that went a long way toward satis-fying the stated goals of the minority community, which has complained of unfair treatment by Dallas police. Before the reforms could even begin to work, black leaders John Wiley Price and Diane Ragsdale waved a red flag toward Washington seeking intervention from the Justice Department. Meanwhile, pro-police factions began gathering signatures on a petition for a referendum that would let voters decide whether or not to throw the reforms out.

●Meanwhile, Police Chief Billy Prince, buoyed within his department by his get-tough-on-critics stance in the aftermath of the police shootings, took the first step in the newly mandated reforms by promoting a black officer with twelve blights on his record. Simultaneous with the announcement, Prince issued a public apology for the promotion.

●Meanwhile, on another front, West End merchants went before the DART board to complain about planned construction methods for digging a subway at Pacific Avenue-even as a bitterly divid ed committee! of business leaders struggled with the question of whether DART ought to begin building the rail line at all.

What is go^ing on here? Is anyone in charge? Have the last rudiments of rational, fortified leadership collapsed? Is there someone besides Ross Perot with a view wide enough to envision what needs to be done and then get out, by God, and do it?

A popular notion these days is that we are suffering through a leadership crisis. And partially, at least, it is true. We are experiencing change And to some, change translates as crisis. Dallas’s leadership strata has been playing a game of musical chairs, and every time the music stops, someone from the new guard steals a chair from the old. A coalition of inner-city liberals is enjoying new-found influence at City Hall. Players getting the nod from Mayor Annette Strauss to tackle problems such as race relations, housing, and highly charged planning issues have, for the most part, few ties to the once all-powerful, all-white, all-male old guard. Black activists like John Wiley Price, Diane Ragsdale, and school board trustee Kathlyn Gilliam reinforce their political footholds by prodding and poking at whites.

But there is an irony in the new order. The majority of key community leaders still are white, and probably could be labeled pro-business, though all are not cut from the CEO cloth of leaders past. That grates on those who feel they have been locked out of the system, especially blacks and Hispanics. It’s open-mike day at City Hall, and there are lots of new acts. But as each previous-ly disenfranchised faction clamors to be heard, the noise can be deafening.

Other cities-Atlanta, for instance-experienced this same loud scramble a decade ago. Two of that city’s leaders were in town last month to relate Dallas’s current troubles to their own bust and rebuilding effort of the mid-Seventies. They pointed out that a downturn in the economy, which Atlanta also suffered just as minorities were demanding more and better representation in public affairs, tends to force people to turn up the volume in order to be heard.

There are no simple equations. Factions within factions, divisions within ranks, rifts among old allies are plaguing white and black communities alike. And no wonder. Much is at stake. Never in Dallas’s history-not even in the volatile Sixties-have we been forced to struggle with such profound and daunting challenges. It is one thing to declare the communal goal of building the best airport in the Western Hemisphere and head single-mindedly in that direction. It is much more difficult to struggle with deteriorating race relations-a common strain in all of the city’s current problems-as we attempt to retool a social order more than a hundred years old.

Are we up to the challenge? I believe that we are, but it will require reaching way beyond the pool of potential leaders that exists now. Those who speak in conciliatory voices need to be granted a new audience. Where are the moderate blacks? The racially sensitive whites? Why is a Hispanic who comes to the table with other races labeled “establishment” and ostracized in his own neighborhood?

Organizations like Leadership Dallas, which selects members of all races and offers them rigorous instruction in public issues, must do more to encourage their graduates to put their training to work. Local corporations, historic training grounds for civic leaders, must continue to support and encourage employees who want to get involved. I hope no corporate leaders have been daunted by the ridiculous accusations that Democratic County Chairman Sandy Kress used his party post to enrich his downtown law firm. If businesses see something in civic activities that could enhance their bottom line, they will only be more motivated to serve. What’s sinister about that?

If we’re lucky, the old guard will stick around to teach the new. Men like J. Erik Jonsson, Charles Cullum, John Stemmons, and others have enormous insights into Dallas that can be enlightening as we move toward the 21st century. Many of those leaders possess a greater sensitivity to human needs than their successors, some of whom seem shrouded in arrogance. But despite the contributions of these great men, it is not productive to slip into a nostalgic reverie for the old days (a popular pastime in some quarters) when a handful of businessmen decided what was best for Dallas. The curtain has fallen on that era.

Most of the headlines in the past months have been grabbed by the few, the extremists. I’ve got to believe that the majority of blacks back the Blue, and that the majority of whites agree that police brutality, if it exists, cannot be tolerated. But the moderates among us have been strangely silent. Silence can be deafening too.