Nearly four months ago, on March 23, a group of concerned clergy gathered in a cramped classroom at Dallas’s First Presbyterian Church on Young Street. They were a newly-formed interfaith task force that would come known to be known as Faith Forward Dallas, and on that morning, they wanted to discuss how they could best serve their community.
The Dallas area in 2016 was a strikingly diverse place, and the group itself was evidence of that. Among them were Omar Suleiman, a young American-born imam whose big-tent message and personal charisma had won him a million likes on his busy Facebook page, and Michael Waters, a prominent African-American minister who had recently set down his thoughts on race and religion into an award-winning book called Freestyle. Yet the group knew that Dallas had not always had an admirable history. It had been the majority white, majority Protestant, staunchly conservative, and widely intolerant redoubt where John F. Kennedy had been killed. It was a history that the group feared wasn’t quite in the past.
“I think the assumption has been that the face of Dallas is a wealthy white man,” said Joe Clifford, First Presbyterian’s senior pastor. “And now it’s an angry white man. The face of Dallas nationally and internationally is Robert Jeffress.”
The rest of the Faith Forward committee nodded. But the problem wasn’t only Jeffress, the high-profile and hellfire-obsessed leader of Dallas’s First Baptist Church who has speculated that President Barack Obama is paving the way for the Antichrist. There had been the rise of an anti-Muslim militia group that protested outside of mosques wearing tactical gear and wielding AK-47s. There had been the racially charged incident in McKinney, in which a white officer had shoved a black teenager to the ground and later drawn his gun on the unarmed crowd. And there had been the March shooting in Addison, in which an off-duty cop named Ken Johnson had pursued and killed 16-year-old Jose Raul Cruz. “My son was killed because of racism,” Cruz’s mother said at a rally then. And while the situation didn’t fit into the most cookie-cutter narrative—Cruz was Hispanic, Johnson was African-American—prosecutors decided it was indeed a crime. The cop, a member of the Farmers Branch police force, was charged with murder.
“When I think of Dallas, I think of a divided city,” said Waters. “North and South—that’s been our legacy. And our work together around this table is: How do we unify this city? ”
Nearly four months later, the demonstration in downtown Dallas to protest the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile had briefly provided Waters with an answer. A crowd from both sides of the Trinity River had joined hands to march through the city. They were calm and purposeful. Black Lives Matter protestors stopped to take pictures with police officers. Waters and Suleiman were among the crowd too. It was a scene that would have been unimaginable anywhere in America in 1963, and utterly beyond comprehension in the Dallas of Lee Harvey Oswald.
And then, just five blocks away from Dealey Plaza, Micah Xavier Johnson opened fire from on high, killing five law enforcement officers and injuring seven more.
“No man lives in a void,” the historian William Manchester writes in The Death of a President, his 1967 account of the Kennedy assassination. “His every act is conditioned by his time and his society. John Wilkes Booth was not an agent of the Confederacy. Despite early assumptions, he had acted on his own. But his victim was murdered at a critical hour in our history, in a city swarming with Southern sympathizers and hardened by seditious talk. Establishing the precise link between deed, era, and locale is a hopeless task, yet to suggest that there was no relationship—that the crime in Ford’s Theatre could have been committed in a serene community, untroubled by crisis—is absurd.”
Like Booth, both Oswald and Johnson acted alone (despite early and—in Oswald’s case—lingering assumptions otherwise). And, as with Booth, Oswald and Johnson’s crimes did not feel like isolated events. They both occurred within charged political environments at moments that felt like breaking points.
The Dallas of the early sixties was an often hostile place. Unruly mobs spat on Lady Bird Johnson and Adlai Stevenson. Jewish businesses were defiled with swastikas. The Dallas Morning News ran articles that referred to FDR’s “Queer Deal” and attacked the U.S. Supreme Court as “the Judicial Kremlin.” Prominent Dallasites like H.L. Hunt and General Edwin Walker (himself an earlier Oswald target) spread conspiracy theories about the Red Menace. The November day when Kennedy arrived in the city, a group of businessmen—among them Hunt’s son Nelson—took out an ad accusing the president and his brother Bobby of going “soft on Communists, fellow-travelers, and ultra-leftists” while “persecuting loyal Americans who criticize you, your administration, and your leadership.” As Manchester writes, “a kind of fever lay over Dallas County. Mad things happened.”
Before November 22, 1963, Dallas had seemed to some like a dangerous place for Kennedy to visit. Texas attorney Byron Skelton had written the President a letter warning him to avoid it. And when Oswald killed Kennedy, the city itself came under scrutiny as an enabler of the crime. “At the heart of the Dallas-killed-Kennedy argument is a similar presumption about Oswald: the community hated Kennedy so much that Oswald felt licensed to act out our fantasy,” notes the writer Lawrence Wright in his memoir, In the New World. This argument had many adherents: around the country the Big D became known as “the City of Hate.”
Yet over the past five decades, Dallas has worked to shift its reputation and shed this unwanted moniker. The city advertises itself as a world-class destination, and it has become a hub for immigration, business relocation, and Americans seeking opportunity. The Dallas of the popular imagination is more the home to America’s Team, J.R. Ewing, Ross Perot, and some Real Housewives than the former stomping grounds of Hunt and Walker. But certain ugly events can recall the older era. This past April, the anti-Muslim militia group—the so-called the Bureau of American Islamic Relations (BAIR)—traveled to South Dallas with loaded assault weapons and set up outside the Nation of Islam’s Muhammad Mosque No. 48. They had come, their leader, David Wright, said, to protest “radical Islam” and racial “no-go zones.” Near the mosque, BAIR was met by a much larger group of armed counter-protesters that included members of the New Black Panther Party, the Huey P. Newton Gun Club and, according to some reports, Micah Xavier Johnson himself. Two counter-protestors carried a banner addressed at BAIR that depicted Hitler blowing his brains out and bore the message “Follow your leader, kill yourself.” Near the end of their short demonstration, BAIR had switched their weapons from safety to fire. (The Dallas police diffused this tense, potentially lethal, situation peacefully.)
When I spoke with Wright, the leader of BAIR, a few days after the standoff, he sounded a note of paranoia that would have been at home in the Dallas of 1963. “The Islamic radicals are teaming up with Black Lives Matter, Black Panthers, Nation of Islam, and the white anarchist movement,” Wright said.
He saw a vast subversive Fifth Column forming that would soon take to the streets and kill people, targeting white conservatives, particularly. “I know this sounds like conspiracy, but it’s the facts, man. Saul Alinsky Rules for Radicals. That shit’s for real. These people have been playing out of that playbook for years.”
Last Thursday, minority groups did indeed come together and take to the streets. But it wasn’t to kill; it was to demonstrate peacefully. Then Johnson’s bullets shattered the unity. In the aftermath, Yafeuh Balogun, a Huey P. Newton Gun Club co-founder who had helped lead the counter-protest against BAIR in South Dallas, wrote on Facebook: “I have no remorse for the Dallas Police Officers shot downtown, it’s about time.” BAIR, for its part, put up a triumphalist post on Facebook with a leaked photo of Johnson’s dead body and the caption “Kill our Cops, you get C4 explosives, that’s how we do it in Texas!”
But these are voices from the fringe. They might have played loudly in the mind of Johnson, but they are not representative of their city. The Dallas that the nation has seen over the past few days has not been the “City of Hate.” It’s been more a city of hope.
And, as it turns out, Carroll, the Presbyterian minister on Faith Forward Dallas, was wrong. Or, at least he is now. Robert Jeffress isn’t the face of Dallas. His recent remarks have been buried on Fox & Friends and a few right-wing websites. It’s been chief of police David Brown, a reform-minded leader whose own son killed a cop before being felled by an officer, who has become that. When the New York Times dubbed Brown “the face of the nation’s shock,” it felt appropriate. The rest of America isn’t raging against Dallas this time. It is mourning with it.