Rescued From the Pages of History, the '61 Desegregation Doc Dallas at the Crossroads

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Someone has posted to YouTube a 1961 film about school desegregation in Dallas called Dallas at the Crossroads. (Parts Two and Three follow after the jump.) I forget what kind of hoops I had to jump through in order to see this thing back in the mid-1980s when I was working on my book, The Accommodation (Citadel Press, 1986, long out of print), about the history of race in Dallas. I just remember that it was not easy to get anybody to screen the movie for me.

Now you can view it at the click of a mouse.

It's a fascinating view of Dallas at the beginning of the 1960s on many levels. I am most fascinated by the view it gives us now of the way the city's power elite thought about things back then.

The leadership of the city was determined to get through the initial phases of court-ordered desegregation without the kind of violence that had already stained the names of cities in the Old South. But that wasn't going to be easy.

The Rev. W.A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church, had just stirred a national controversy with a rabidly segregationist speech in South Carolina. Back in Dallas, federal Judge T. Whitfield Davidson was issuing opinions that were long rambling expositions of KKK-style racism, practically calling for violence.

The Dallas Citizens Council commissioned this film at the suggestion of the late Stanley Marcus of Neiman-Marcus, Dallas's famous high-end downtown department store. Marcus tapped ad man Sam Bloom to put it together. The movie is a reminder of Marcus's very important role over many years as a courageous champion of tolerance.

The movie, a creation then of two Jewish guys, opens with a direct appeal to Jesus as the leader who can get Dallas through this tough moment. But, you know, in looking back at it this morning, I feel a whole lot less snide about all that than I did when I viewed it in some basement screening room a quarter-century ago.

Maybe it's because now, in the times we're in at this moment, I somehow have a better appreciation of what Dallas was up against in the early 1960s. The film is dated, of course, but it has a core message that resonates in our own day. It calls for respect for the law, respect for the institutions of American government and, above all else, simple moral decency.

There's a great speech toward the end by Felix McKnight, who was then managing editor of the Dallas Times Herald. Standing in front of a stream of newspapers coming off a press, McKnight tells Dallas in no uncertain terms that de-seg is going to happen and it's going to happen because it's the right thing to do:

"It is simple," McKnight says. "It is just. It is realistic. It is mandatory."

Not a single black face appears in the film, which was shown to audiences in lunch rooms and churches all over the city. But I noticed again in watching it today something that struck me when I viewed it the first time: the white faces in the newsreels from Little Rock and elsewhere are ugly. Terrible. Vile.

And that's what the Citizens Council was telling people: When you hate, you look like this.

Given the challenges of the time, that was a pretty gutsy position to take.

One of many ironies you may notice in watching this film is that the peaceful desegregation that followed never achieved school desegregation. A decade later when a new lawsuit, Tasby, tried again and did achieve a measure of success, the white folks all took off for the suburbs and Christian school.

Oops. Guess there are limits on what government can get people to do.

But here is what haunts me in watching this thing now. For all the terrible problems that beset America back when this movie was made, the thing that held Dallas together was a love and reverence for the law and the nation.


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