In the years before the JFK assassination, Dallas emerged as the epicenter of America's extremist movements, the home to far-right figures like former gener Edwin Walker, oil baron H.L. Hunt, and National Indignation Convention founder Frank McGehee—and, on the other side, Lee Harvey Oswald. As right-wingers label the president a traitor and the United Nations a communist front, locals like Neiman Marcus chief Stanley Marcus tried to present a more tolerant image and push back against critics of the "City of Hate." The era is the subject of Dallas 1963, Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis's retrospective on the paranoia and rage of the era, from which this piece—chronicling an October, 1963 visit by Adlai Stevenson, the American ambassador to the hated United Nations—is excerpted.
In North Dallas, Walker is finishing a fine meal at a friend’s house. The men retreat to the living room. Walker is leaning in close to the television for the live broadcast of the Stevenson speech. Walker knows enough, after being arrested by Kennedy’s people in Mississippi, to stay away from the affair. Who knows what Kennedy’s people would do to him if he showed up in person to challenge their damned United Nations ambassador?
Above the stage hangs a large banner: WELCOME ADLAI.
The sign had been a curiosity. It was there when the auditorium crew arrived earlier that afternoon. They weren’t sure how that had happened, but they left it in place.
From his chair on the stage, looking out at the restive crowd, Stanley Marcus is beginning to realize that the confrontation Stevenson has been avoiding all day is finally arriving ... and Marcus is stunned by its scope. It isn’t supposed to be this way. He had thought that the arrival of a reasonable, well-spoken man would placate the extremists in Dallas—possibly even win them over. It was, really, the same thing that Rhett James had thought when he invited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Dallas. That having these men in the city, that hearing them, the hard-edged people would be forced to retreat, to surrender to the collective goodwill of the city.
Marcus’s role is to introduce Stevenson, but as he walks to the podium a cacophony of boos and catcalls rains down on him. Positioned directly behind him is the official flag of the United Nations. Marcus, who has set the style for Dallas for so long, feels waves of hatred washing over him.
He has not prepared any formal remarks. As he stands under the hot spotlight, sweating and facing an angry crowd, words suddenly flee. He is usually able to spin a gossamer speech at any given moment, but now he is adrift. Visibly rattled, he limps through an abbreviated, halting introduction—punctuated by jeers. He takes a seat on stage, pulls out a handkerchief and wipes sweat from his brow.
Stevenson acknowledges the cheers and ignores the snaking hisses that echo in the cavernous hall.
Suddenly a large, bulky man near the front row rises from his seat.
“Mr. Ambassador, I have a question for you!” shouts Frank McGehee, the Dallas founder of the National Indignation Convention.
Stevenson ignores him and begins his speech, but McGehee keeps shouting, raising his voice in defiance. Now he is asking why Stevenson insists on negotiating with communist dictators.
Stevenson finally stares down at him and says in a dry voice: “I’ll be delighted to give you equal time after I have finished.”
As cops move toward him, McGehee keeps shouting.
A small, elderly Dallas schoolteacher is sitting near McGehee—and he stands up and tries to push the larger man back into his seat.
McGehee wrestles the man. The cops finally arrive and grab him by the arms as he tries to twist away.
“Surely my dear friend,” Stevenson says loudly, “I don’t have to come here from Illinois to teach Texas manners, do I?”
A roar of approval erupts as police march McGehee toward the exit.
Stevenson issues a parting shot: “For my part, I believe in the forgiveness of sin and the redemption of ignorance.”
Schmidt and the remaining protesters keep trying to interrupt Stevenson’s rhythm. Hundreds of Halloween noisemakers clack in unison the instant he starts a sentence. People are fake coughing, laughing in exaggerated fashion.
“How about Cuber?” some people are yelling, trying to imitate JFK’s accent.
One man stands up and chants: “Kennedy will get his reward in hell. Stevenson is going to die. His heart will stop, stop, stop. And he will burn, burn, burn.”
People begin streaming into the aisles, holding American flags upside down, a tactic they have learned from General Walker to signal a nation in distress or under attack. Halfway through Stevenson’s speech, a group of Walker’s commandos dart behind the stage and pull on a rope. The large banner that reads WELCOME ADLAI flips down to reveal another message in huge letters: UN RED FRONT.
One Stevenson supporter turns to another in disbelief:
“This must be what it was like in Munich during the Beer Hall Putsch.”
More scuffles are breaking out, but Stevenson is insisting on staying on stage—and directly addressing the extremists in Dallas:
“I understand that some of these fearful groups are trying to establish a United States Day in competition with United Nations Day. This is the first time I have heard that the United States and the United Nations are rivals.”
Stevenson continues speaking, and when he finishes his supporters erupt with prolonged cheers. The ovation lasts for three full minutes as Stevenson waves back to the crowd and is finally hustled off stage. In the wings, Marcus leads the ambassador to a small, private reception with members of the Dallas United Nations Association.
Stevenson listens to numerous apologies and receives assurances that most people in Dallas don’t agree with the protesters.
Then, a policeman passes the word that not all of the protesters have left the premises. Nearly a hundred people are marching in front of the auditorium. The group is surrounding Stevenson’s limousine and chanting anti-UN slogans. Larrie Schmidt’s people are among them. They sing “Dixie” and “Onward Christian Soldiers” while a half dozen police officers nervously monitor the situation.
One of the protestors is Cora Lacy Frederickson, the wife of a Dallas insurance executive and a staunch supporter of General Walker. She attended Walker’s U.S. Day rally last night. She is carrying a large sign nailed to a piece of wood. It is one of those used by Schmidt’s group, and it reads: ADLAI, WHO ELECTED YOU?
Inside the auditorium, police officers confer with Marcus and Stevenson. They decide that it is best for the ambassador to leave from the south stage door, away from the knot of protesters. A police escort helps Stevenson’s driver move the limousine. As the car drives away, the crowd rushes after it.
The cops quickly set up a rope line for Stevenson and Marcus to help them reach the waiting limousine. As Stevenson emerges, a buzz goes up and people race toward him, waving their signs and yelling: “COMMUNIST!” and “TRAITOR!”
Police struggle to hold back the crowd. TV and news photographers zoom in to capture the scene as the angry picketers descend on Stevenson. Seemingly oblivious to any danger, Stevenson chats and shakes hands with supporters as he moves toward his car.
Frederickson suddenly flies toward Stevenson, her sign raised high. Flashbulbs are popping as her placard slams down on Stevenson’s forehead, just missing his eye. The ambassador steps back under the blow.
A clean-cut college student pushes toward the reeling Stevenson, flailing his fists. The cops and Stevenson’s aides push back.
Frederickson is seized by the police.
Stevenson gathers his composure and yells to make himself heard over the crowd. He tells the police not to arrest the woman. He attempts to talk to her, even as the crowd pushes and heaves.
“What’s the matter with you?” he asks her. “What’s the trouble?”
Frederickson yells at him: “Don’t you know?”
Stevenson asks: “Know what?”
She shouts: “I know, everybody knows. Why don’t you know?”
Stevenson gives up: “It’s all right to have your own views ... but don’t hit anyone.”
The police are flanking him and Marcus, pushing them toward the limousine. Some of Stevenson’s supporters have dug into their pockets and are throwing coins at the protesters to get them to disperse.
Stevenson and Marcus have nearly reached the car when two more young men leap from the crowd.
“TRAITOR!” they yell in unison, unleashing gobs of spit at Stevenson’s face.
Two cops wrestle one of them, a twenty-two-year-old General Walker loyalist, to the ground. The man spits again, this time into the face of one of the cops struggling with him.
The other man darts into the line of protesters, making a clean getaway. The cops can’t chase him because it will leave Stevenson unprotected.
They try to put handcuffs on the twenty-two-year-old. He begins screaming: “THEY ARE BURNING ME WITH CIGARETTES!”
One of the policemen wrenches open a door to the limousine and Marcus pushes Stevenson inside, crawling in desperately after him as the cop slams the door shut.
The protesters begin rocking the automobile. The chauffeur appears immobilized by fear.
Marcus barks: “Get the hell out of here!”
The chauffeur guns the engine and the car pulls forward as protesters fall away. The limo hurtles through the parking lot, screeching as it turns a corner. Inside the car, Stevenson takes out his handkerchief and wipes the saliva from his face.
Addressing no one in particular he asks:
“Are these human beings or animals?”
From the book DALLAS 1963. Copyright 2013 by Bill Minutaglio & Steven L. Davis, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.