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Primary Sources Illuminate Dallas 1963

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Dallas 1963 is devoid of conspiracy theories. It’s not a dry, brittle history text. And you won’t find any single person blamed for JFK’s assassination.

Instead, Observer contributor Bill Minutaglio and Wittliff Collections curator Steven L. Davis have resurrected the political climate that suffused Dallas in advance of Kennedy’s fateful visit, showing how businessmen, religious zealots, political leaders and moneyed tycoons all contributed to a complex atmosphere of intolerance and hate.

His experience working with the archives at Texas State University’s Wittliff Collections certainly gave co-author Davis a home-field advantage in researching the project. “Working in the archives means you know what questions to ask to find the right material,” Davis says. For Davis, much of that material lies in unprocessed primary sources—documents that have yet to be categorized and are therefore not open and accessible to the public. As a result, these primary sources have rarely—if ever—been reported on. “Going into the archives, you’re finding things that no one has ever really looked at,” Davis says. “That’s when you start doing something really exciting and groundbreaking.”

Take, for example, the Mink Coat Mob riot, organized by Republican U.S. Congressman Bruce Alger, which occurred in Dallas just days before Kennedy’s 1960 election. That attack on Lady Bird and Lyndon B. Johnson has long been relegated to a footnote in histories of the Kennedy campaign, but Davis says the event has been under-appreciated as a factor in Kennedy’s election. The attack inspired sympathy from, for instance, Richard Russell, a Democratic senator from Georgia who had refused to support Kennedy and Johnson because of their pro-civil rights plank. After the Mink Coat Mob accosted the Johnsons, however, Russell flew to Texas and stumped for the ticket, helping to bring “reluctant segregationist-minded voters back into the Democratic column,” according to Davis.

Further research into this overlooked event led Davis and Minutaglio to the Nixon presidential papers and recordings housed in California’s Nixon Presidential Library. One recording documents a frustrated Richard Nixon telling a staff member, “Well, we lost Texas in 1960 because of that asshole congressman [Alger] in Dallas.” Davis says the recording makes it clear that Nixon blamed Alger and the Mink Coat Mob incident for his loss, as he’d previously been leading the Texas polls.

“When you find something like this in the archives,” Davis says, “it puts a new light on this historical incident and proves our assertion of how consequential this event turned out to be.”

Minutaglio and Davis bring such historical nuance to light throughout Dallas 1963. The duo will be at Houston’s Brazos Bookstore on Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. and at Austin’s BookPeople on Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. to discuss their collaboration. For an excerpt of Dallas 1963, see the November issue of The Texas Observer.