It was the summer of 1961, and Bob Cullum, the co-founder of Tom Thumb, had a problem.
Two months earlier, the federal court had ordered Dallas to begin integration of its public schools. In other major cities, integration had been accompanied by ugly scenes and violent confrontations. The recent televised pictures from New Orleans were particularly disgusting, with white mothers cursing and spitting on innocent black children as they walked between federal marshals into their new classrooms.
Dallas would be different, the business community decreed. The Dallas Citizens Council gave Cullum the job of making sure integration in Dallas happened quietly, smoothly, and peacefully.
But nobody told Joe Walton*. Or rather, they had told him, but he wasn’t paying any attention. Walton made himself a highly visible member of the school board by demanding the district use every means possible to fight integration. It seemed everywhere Cullum turned there was Walton on radio, television, and in the newspapers announcing that white and black children would never mix.
With the new court order in hand, Cullum had been to see Walton twice at his office supply company. Both times Walton rebuffed him, had seemed to enjoy rebuffing him, telling Cullum that God’s law stood above human law, and God’s law was that the races were to remain apart. Mixing in schools would lead to miscegenation; miscegenation would lead to mixed children. Mixed children would lead to America’s doom at the hand of an angry God.
As far as Cullum was concerned, Walton could believe whatever he wanted. Cullum had heard plenty of the same from his own friends. The problem with Walton was that he planned to do something about it. He was threatening to turn out the entire white population of Dallas to stop integration in its tracks on the opening day of school.
The Citizens Council had its levers for situations like this. Its bank members controlled 90 percent of the business loans in the city. But a Bible-thumper like Walton had to be handled with kid gloves. A direct threat might send him off the cliff.
Cullum decided there was a better approach. Give Walton a little wiggle room, but keep the hard stick handy in case he needed a thwack.
He asked Walton if he would join him for lunch with the three leading black preachers in town. Surely Walton wasn’t afraid to hear the other side. Walton said he wasn’t afraid at all. In fact, he thought he could get the preachers to agree with him. He was merely following what Scripture said.
Cullum set up the meeting at Elsie’s Grill Restaurant in South Dallas. He invited his friend John Stemmons and Walton’s personal banker, and told them what he wanted them to do.
The lunch took place on a hot July afternoon. Elsie’s was not air-conditioned, and the kitchen was open to the small dining area. As the men arrived, each took off his suit coat and put it on the back of his chair. By the time Cullum finished his introductions, the men’s ties were loosened and sleeves rolled up.
The three preachers took turns making their case to Walton. One brought his daughter’s history textbook, a tattered 1946 edition. They described the poor condition of black schools, with peeling paint and bad plumbing. While they talked, Cullum nodded encouragingly, looking at Walton every now and then to measure the effect.
Meanwhile, Stemmons and the banker sat stone-faced, their eyes glued on Walton. The fried chicken was served, a hot steaming basket. Everyone else picked up the greasy pieces with their fingers, but Stemmons pushed his basket aside and kept his gaze squarely on Walton. Finally, after Walton had taken three or four bites, Stemmons leaned his 6-foot-4 frame across the table.
“The United States of America has told us we’ve got to integrate our schools, and by damn, that’s just what we’re going to do. We will not let Dallas show up on national television because of some commotion. You try it, and I will run you down.”
It became known as the Dallas way. If it’s good for Dallas, let’s get it done—quietly. If there is a fight brewing, let’s head it off—quietly.
Walton looked at his banker. The banker dipped his head in agreement. Walton was not dumb. He knew why Stemmons and his banker were there. He looked at Cullum. “Now, Joe,” Cullum said soothingly, “I want to think about what these fine pastors have told you. Surely you can see that it is unfair and unjust and has to stop.” Walton gave an almost imperceptible nod. The meeting was over.
Outside, once everyone left, Stemmons put his hand on Cullum’s shoulder. “I have one question. Why in the hell did we have to do that at Elsie’s?”
“John, your problem is you don’t understand human beings,” Cullum said. “Elsie makes the greasiest fried chicken in Dallas. Have you ever heard a man argue for segregation to three black preachers while sweating like a pig with grease all over his face?”
On September 6, 1961, Dallas schools integrated without incident.
The Dallas establishment under Mercantile Bank founder R.L. Thornton led Dallas during the postwar boom, and, in 1963, it still reigned benignly over the city it built. By the 1960s, younger men in middle age like Cullum, Stemmons, and Aston had replaced the older ruling troika of bankers—Mercantile’s Thornton, Republic’s Fred Florence, and First National’s Nate Adams. The transition had been smooth, and the financial resources of the business community allowed it to mostly handpick a city council and school board that were elected at large.
The men who first organized the Dallas business community were children of the Progressive Era. For more than a decade before organizing formally as the Dallas Citizens Council, they led campaigns for municipal reform and big projects to build Dallas. In short order, they replaced the old and corrupt commissioner’s form of government with a progressive city manager system, rechanneled the Trinity River to stop the flooding that impeded development, cleaned up the gambling and prostitution that followed the 1930s oil boom, and caused the city to invest heavily in sewer, street, and highway infrastructure to accommodate its growth.
In later years, they turned conservative, as most movements do. Their job was to keep Dallas safe for business. Every major business owner was a member, and almost every business was local. If Dallas grew, their businesses grew. Thornton set their mission early: instead of fighting over whose slice of the pie was bigger, their job was to make the pie bigger.
From 1940 to 1960, the city mushroomed from a population of 295,000 to 680,000. Growth produced tensions. Newcomers were increasingly wary of decision-making that seemed to benefit only the decision-makers, if appreciative of the foresight that enabled their new city to prosper. Even longtime citizens grumbled about a city run from behind closed doors. But the men who ran the city were not tone-deaf. Thornton himself famously stood most weekdays at the corner of Main and Ervay streets to talk to citizens as they walked by. When outsiders threatened it, the tight-knit group did not try to crush them. Instead, they invited the outsiders inside.
In 1959, Earle Cabell—son of a mayor, grandson of another mayor—rebelled and ran against Thornton’s re-election. He argued that it was time to get the city moving again. The business establishment said Cabell should wait his turn, and the citizens apparently agreed, re-electing the mayor by a wide margin. When Cabell ran again in 1961, the business community made sure he won.
On another front in 1959, NAACP organizer Juanita Craft launched a protest movement to integrate Dallas lunch counters and public venues. In 1944, Craft had been the first black woman to vote in Dallas County. When she first started her protests, outside a Woolworth’s on Main Street, the two daily newspapers did not choose to take notice for fear of stirring up segregationists. But when school integration was ordered in 1961, the Dallas Citizens Council quietly suggested that every public business should follow suit. On one Monday morning in September, every business downtown complied. (Fourteen years later, with new court-imposed single-member districts, Juanita Craft was elected to the city council.)
It became known as the Dallas Way. If it’s good for Dallas, let’s get it done—quietly. If there is a fight brewing, let’s head it off—quietly. If some folks are insistent, invite them to Elsie’s, and let’s work it out over some greasy fried chicken.
Even as it worked to keep things behind the scenes, there were unpleasant surprises. At a White House luncheon for publishers in the fall of 1961, Dallas Morning News publisher Ted Dealey told President John F. Kennedy to his face that he needed to “get off Caroline’s tricycle” and start leading the country. The insult to the president made every newspaper in the country, and it made Dallas leaders wince, as they were trying to get the president’s approval for a new federal courthouse in downtown Dallas.
Worse embarrassment was to come. In October 1963, Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson came to town to promote America’s role in the world organization. Right-wing protesters had organized to disrupt Stevenson’s speech and then assaulted him on his way out. The incident made the nightly news on all three national networks. Stevenson advised the president to cancel his upcoming trip to Dallas.
That was too much. The Dallas leadership sprang into action.
The White House was assured that Dallas was ready and able to welcome the president with true Texas hospitality. Every police officer was called in for duty. Potential protestors were warned they would be arrested on the spot. Businesses were instructed to give their employees the day off to swell the crowds and to give the president a rousing reception. A huge luncheon to be attended by every major figure in the city was laid out at Dallas’ largest public space, Trammell Crow’s Trade Mart on Stemmons Freeway. Every detail was planned down to the last second. With one visit on one day, Dallas would reverse these minor bouts of bad publicity and show the nation its better side.
None of the men were happy, but Thornton was heartbroken. All he had worked to build for 30 years had been wiped out by Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet.
In 1968, I got an opportunity to see the Dallas Way, what happened when the city’s leadership sprang into action.
A sophomore at the University of Texas, I was called into the dean’s office one day in early May. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, which led to a wave of riots in many American cities. Suddenly, black teenagers became a focus of national attention. Manpower Inc., a temporary workforce supplier, had established a program for teenage summer employment in Milwaukee a few years earlier. This program was now being rushed into as many large cities as possible. The dean asked me if I would take Dallas. It paid $400 a month. I said yes.
I flew to Milwaukee for training and to receive a thick notebook of everything I needed to do. Dallas was targeted for 5,000 summer jobs, and I was the 19-year-old who was supposed to supply them.
The first instruction was to enlist the support of local business leaders. I didn’t know any local business leaders. But I knew that Stemmons Freeway was named after John Stemmons (it wasn’t; it was named after his father, Storey). So I called him.
To my surprise, he answered the phone. I gave him a three-minute rundown on the program and asked to meet him. He told me to be in Dallas the following Wednesday for lunch with him at the City Club. I bought a tie, and on Wednesday drove my Volkswagen up to Dallas.
At the City Club atop Republic Tower, I asked the receptionist for John Stemmons. The manager instantly appeared and ushered me down a hallway away from the dining room. He pulled open two large doors, and I found myself standing at the back of a horseshoe table where about 40 men were having lunch and arguing among themselves. At the far end in the middle of the cross table, a very large man motioned me to come forward and sit next to him. I figured that was John Stemmons.
It was, and he was guiding the discussion. As I sat down to his right, a plate was placed in front of me, and in an aside, he said, “Eat. You’re next.”
A few minutes later, Stemmons told me to stand and launched from his seat into an exact repetition of what I told him on the phone. He asked me to add more, which I did, and said, “I told you to bring a one-page checklist. Did you bring it?” I fumbled for the checklist, which I typed the night before and folded into my pocket. He unfolded it, put on his glasses, and looked up at the men. “This is good for Dallas, so we’re going to do it. Got a lot of things here that need to be done fast.” He then started running down the checklist.
“Office space near downtown on a bus route. Who’s got that? You? How many square feet?” He looked at me. “That enough?” I said yes. “Done.”
“Twenty telephones. Southwestern Bell?” A man raised his hand. “Done.”
“Convention Center for first Saturday in June for the job fair.” Another man raised his hand. “Done.”
“Six chartered buses. Mobil Oil, you pay for that?” A man nodded. “Done.”
“Newspaper ads.” He peered over his glasses at two men seated side by side. “Done.”
And on he went. Forty single-spaced items on my pocket-folded and hand-typed checklist were committed to while dessert was being served.
The program in Dallas—launched in three weeks—successfully placed 12,000 Dallas high school students in summer jobs, 80 percent of whom were minority and 60 percent of whom had never before held a job.