We’re excited to introduce a new Scribe feature with today’s very first “Members Review” post. Starting today, we’ll be bringing you periodic book reviews, written by Writers’ League members about books that are recently published and are either written by Texas writers or written about (or set in) this great state of ours. Our intention is to bring attention and support to Texas writers and we hope you’ll enjoy these reviews as much as our members are enjoying writing them.
Our first Members Review is posting today, on this the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, because the book we chose is a compelling new addition to the national dialogue surrounding that dark day in November: Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis (Published in October 2013 by Twelve/ Grand Central Publishing).The review is written by WLT member (and Board of Directors member), Joseph Pluta. Joe has been a member since 2013 and resides in Austin.
Who Killed JFK? Oswald or Dallas?
Many accounts of the Kennedy assassination focus on conspiracy theories, Warren Commission inaccuracies, and reinterpretations of either established facts or loosely derived opinions. Dallas 1963 offers a long overdue fresh approach to this much-studied American tragedy. Its co-authors, from the University of Texas at Austin and Texas State University in San Marcos, emphasize the mood of hatred and obsession that had been building up within the Dallas community since the 1960 presidential campaign. Their research is based on thousands of heretofore untapped written primary sources, personal interviews, unreleased photographs, and film footage. The result is a professionally penned work, a captivating read, and a perspective that substitutes documented references for sensationalism.
Within their carefully structured format, Bill Minutaglio and Steven Davis provide a month-by-month chronicle of events in Dallas and elsewhere from January 1960 to November 1963. They expose the sinister relationship that top Dallas politicians and business leaders shared with the KKK, the John Birch Society, fundamentalist religious extremism, and hate radio broadcasts. Leaders in these institutions routinely and systematically bashed the UN, the NAACP, civil rights marchers, labor, liberals, Catholics, and the Supreme Court, the latter largely because of its landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision. With more passionate fervor than sound logic, all of these arbitrarily discredited groups were somehow linked to Communist infiltration.
Some of the book’s leading characters include ultraconservative oil billionaire H. L. Hunt, newspaper publisher Ted Dealey, Baptist minister W. A. Criswell, Republican Congressman Bruce Alger, and defrocked U. S. Army General Edwin A. Walker who would later be incarcerated for psychiatric evaluation. Among other stances, Hunt proposed that people in the lower 40 percent of the income scale be denied the right to vote and that the wealthiest Americans be given seven votes each with the option to purchase more. Dealey renamed the New Deal “the Queer Deal”, despite the fact that Dealey Plaza was a 1930s WPA project named after his father. The family run Dallas Morning News routinely opposed integration and once referred to Washington as “the Negro Capital of the U. S.” Criswell, pastor of the largest all white Baptist Church in the country, regarded the Catholic Church as an evil equivalent to Communism. Alger organized an ugly clash between Nixon supporters and the LBJ family on Commerce Street just days before the election. Walker, a closet homosexual and devout segregationist supported by the American Nazi Party, believed, without offering any evidence, that “Texas is a prime target of Soviet attention.” In July of 1961, Alger, Dealey, and Joint Chiefs-of-Staff Chairman Curtis LeMay, publicly advocated a first strike nuclear attack on Soviet cities.
The authors also detail efforts by retailer Stanley Marcus to create a more cultured metropolitan environment in Dallas. In addition, they cover the roles played by African American educator, the Reverend H. Rhett James, and by NAACP activist Juanita Craft, to organize civil rights protests and to enhance economic opportunities for African Americans. In-depth discussion of conflicts between this trio and the above extremists is both compelling and frightening. Marcus is one of the more interesting case studies as he moves to desegregate his famous department store restaurant, supports the Kennedy-Johnson ticket, and alerts the President it may not be safe for him to come to Dallas.
Readers are also treated to a number of less well-known events that some may find surprising. These include the 1959 visit of Robert Kennedy to the LBJ ranch, the hurling of insults at President Kennedy by Dealey at a White House dinner for journalists, General Walker’s high profile role in the 1962 University of Mississippi riots to protest James Meredith’s effort to enroll, and Lee Harvey Oswald’s near miss in and clever escape from his attempt to kill Walker (seven months before the death of Kennedy). Perhaps even more astounding is the description of business leader fears that customers would avoid the city after the assassination. This resulted in a letter to the President’s widow asking her to sign a testimonial to Dallas hospitality!!!
The authors never say explicitly either that Dallas killed the President or that the city’s intense animosity created an environment within which someone was destined to step forward and commit the crime, even if that person were not Oswald. Throughout the book, however, the reader becomes compelled to address the possibility that the atmosphere in then culturally limited Dallas contributed to an anti-Kennedy sentiment where some form of violence might naturally take its ugly course.
Dallas 1963 is a powerful book filled with precisely marshaled evidence that took many years to uncover. It is also an entertaining read, especially for those who appreciate historical accuracy and mesmerizing prose.
Joseph Pluta has published 21 books, over 70 short stories, and more than 60 articles in academic journals. He has served on the faculties of 8 universities and has been Editor of a magazine, host of a radio show, director of a University Honors Program, and consultant to both foreign governments and U. S. businesses. Joe grew up in New Buffalo, Michigan and still enjoys traveling throughout the state and Canada. He lives in Austin, Texas.