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Dallas Together Forum leaders reflect on past sins, "The Big Event, " and a new covenant.

TWENTY YEARS AGO, JOE ALCANTAR, Pettis Norman, and Bill Solomon were still learning how to grapple with life and business in the city of Dallas, Texas. Today, they share the chairmanship of Dallas Together Forum, the multi-ethnic peace council of Dallas CEOs. Who better to talk about how this city has changed and what’s really happened to race relations over the last 20 years than these three?

An electrician then, Alcantar now owns his own electrical contracting company and has since served as chairman of the Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Dallas people still thought of Pettis Norman as a Dallas Cowboys football hero, even though he had already embarked on the road to where he is today–head of his own successful business and a major force in the African-American community.

Bill Solomon is the anomaly, if only because he seems unchanged by the passage of time. Only 27 years old in 1970, he became CEO of Austin Industries, a post he still occupies. Today he represents the new enlightened business leadership of the city, but he was definitely around yesterday in the pre-enlightenment era.

The organization they chair, the Dallas Together Forum, came about in response to charges that Dallas CEOs didn’t deal with some basic issues in the city. Their goal was to create a multiracial group of business and professional leaders to concern themselves with bringing about “lasting change for equity for all races and ethnic groups in Dallas.” In their most visible action to date, the Dallas Together Forum rallied 200 companies to join in a private sector covenant to disclose and set objectives for purchases of goods and services from minority firms, hiring of minorities and inclusion of work place diversity in regular performance reviews.

Alcantar, Norman and Solomon were kind enough to meet with me around a conference table at Austin Industries one day recently for a sort of historical seance. We didn’t holdhands, of course, but we did spend some time staring off into space.

Bill Solomon: When 1 think of the first time I sat down as a member of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce board of directors in 1978,I think about just the immediate picture in my mind-one that’s very different from what it is today-and that is the color of the skin. It was an all-white and I’m pretty sure all-male group. Well-intentioned white males, but white males. God almighty, walk in a room today and see all white males, and that’s the first thing you would notice.

Pettis Norman: I came to Dallas 32 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina, and one of the first things I was told at that time…was that there was clearly a division line between the races. It was very clear. One of the things that I was told was that we should not really attempt to ride in cabs that were driven by white people. It was just that simple.

I remember very vividly [what] one of the officials of the Dallas Cowboys told me at training camp, and it was just part of a conversation, you understand. He was giving me some advice on the best ways to be cut from the team. He said one of the ways a person could be cut was to eat your way out. In other words, get too fat to play. And the other one was to date a white woman. It was very clear to me that Dallas not only had a major division between the races, it was one that they proudly promoted at that time.

Begging off on the anecdote business, Joe Alcantar said 20 years ago he was still working as an electrician, living his life pretty much within the Hispanic community and not thinking in terms of what kind of city Dallas was or was not.

We talked a lot about when the change came. Solomon and Norman both said the “big event” was the election of former TV personality and dark horse candidate Wes Wise as mayor in 1975. Wise ran against the anointed candidate of the old business oligarchy-John Schoelkopf-and, lo and behold, Wes Wise won.

Solomon: I chink Wes Wise’s election could be viewed as a watershed, which just brought home the fact, if anybody needed it brought home at that point, that the Citizens Council and the Citizens Charter Association-the oligarchy-could no longer set the agenda and move it forward. It was a new ball game.

I think clearly what happened is that for about 10 years thereafter the business community went into retreat. They said, “We don’t know how to operate in this ball game,” and so they didn’t [operate]. They really addressed themselves to a narrower and narrower range of issues. And they came to commonly use the term “kiss of death,” as in, “It we support something, that’s the kiss of death. It will fail.”

I as a young businessman coming up felt that was really sad. The old days wouldn’t work, but it was wrong for the business community to say we didn’t have a role to play. I think what you saw emerging was the business community coming back in over the last 10 years, saying, “We have a role to play, but we have got to recognize this is a different hall game.”

Norman: The election Bill spoke of really was a change in the concept of power and who had that power, and it was a signal of the greater change that was to take place in the city.

We talked about the period of Dallas history from the late 1970s to the early 1990s-wild and woolly, boom and bust, passion and heartache, love and hate.

Norman: You know, Jim, when I think about the time period that you mentioned, there is a very vivid picture that comes to my mind, and it is one that is depicted in the movie The Ten Commandments. It’s one in which the children of Israel have been freed by Moses, and they were marching. They had stopped in this valley, and all of a sudden they forgot all about the good things that they needed to do.

They really started believing that their new prosperity was inevitable and perpetual- Moses threw down the Ten Commandments, and all of a sudden they found that their good fortune was gone. I looked at these buildings downtown and in North Dallas…and I remember thinking “somebody is absolutely mad with this notion that this will continue.”

Out of all of that I think a new mentality exists in Dallas today about power, prosperity and inclusion.

Solomon agreed thai the worst of times- back then-seem to have paved the way for what could well turn out to be the best of times-soon to come.

Solomon: You’ve got Dallas now on the front end of an economic recovery at the very time that Pettis and Joe and 1 have been talking about, and that is sort of a coming of age politically and socially. And I think not so bad a metaphor really is that Dallas went through a protracted and very painful adolescence in this very painful period of the 70s and ’80s, out of which 1 think we are coming of age in terms of knowing how to live together with a greater sense of community.

Joe Alcantar: It’s part of an evolutionary process. We couldn’t do what we’re doing today 10 years ago. It was just unheard of We couldn’t have the CEOs at the table on a monthly basis discussing certain issues about the city and have the diversity in that same room 10 years ago.

It reminds me of when the Dallas Together Forum started, and we met together that first month to try to see what we could do, if we could do something, how would we do it, as a group of 31 at that time. We decided we needed to take a weekend retreat- Believe it or not, 31 of 31 people were there. And when you look at the CEOs of these corporations-from American Airlines to JCPenney-for those individual CEOs to take part in this retreat, it showed to me that they recognized one thing, and that was the growing diversity of the city.

I asked them what they would tell an old friend from another city who called up to ask about moving his business to Dallas.

Solomon: I’m very bullish about where Dallas stands right now.

Alcantar: I see the light at the end of the tunnel brighter than I have in years past.

Norman: In fact I talked to someone this morning who had left here because this city, in their estimation and mine at that time, did not offer great opportunities for minorities, especially African-Americans. I told him that Dallas is on the verge of becoming, I believe, the model city of the United States of America.

There is a new sense that is beginning to pervade our community that we want to do things different from our predecessors and especially to do things different from what we see being done in other cities. I know that is a long way for me to come in the last three or four years…

Solomon (interrupting): You were not a happy camper…(Laughter)

Norman (agreeing adamantly): I was not a happy camper. The new level of frustration that I saw happening in this city was not one that I wanted to be a part of. I was ready to move back to Charlotte, North Carolina because of where I saw us going. Now I can say to my friends that this is the place you really want to be.

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