I’m pleased to announce that my song “Sitting In the Trade Hall (11.22.63)” (1) is now available on iTunes as a single. This song will eventually be on my new CD, whenever it’s finally done. But given that we’re a month-out from the 50th Anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, I thought it was a good time to release a single now.
I’d be honored for you all to give a listen, and pleased to have you download it for yourself.
It’s a song I wrote some years ago, from the perspective of adults who lived in Dallas at the time of this horrific event.
Here’s a video for the song:
But since I love blogging, I thought I’d not only announce the song, but also talk more about both it and my own thoughts on the Kennedy assassination.
Fifty-years is a long time.
Think of it this way:1963 is to Now.
What 1913 was to 1963.
And, as we know, time moves even faster now than it did back then. World events –assassinations, murders, shootings– come at us like water out of a fire hydrant. I’m not saying this is good. I’m just saying, “it is.”
Like September 11th in the present day, the Kennedy assassination was the most deeply scarring domestic event of a generation. Nobody escaped being changed by it. And, everybody alive at the time remembers it.
Well, everybody but me…
One of the strange facts about us late-generation Baby Boomers (the President and Michelle Obama are others, btw…) is that even though we are generally lumped together with the “Boomers,” the memories we share are with our younger “Buster” brethren and sistren.
We have few conscious memories of most of the world events and trends that shaped the lives of most Boomers, even though they tell us we are one. This was always very very strange for me, growing up. And never stranger than when it came to the Kennedy assassination.
Yes, I lived in Dallas at the time (ten minutes from the scene). But at fourteen-months-and-one-day-old; there’s no conscious memory for me.
So, while everybody I grew up with has a “Where were you?” story, I don’t. Stranger still, the stories I grew up hearing were first hand.
The people I grew up with –some of my parent’s friends, and friend’s parents– have memories of being in the parade route, or at Market Hall waiting for the lunch. (I’ll talk more about them in a moment…)
Dallas’ Silent Burden
I think it’s important for folks beyond Dallas to understand this: While the Kennedy assassination no doubt changed you, it specially changed our whole city. It stayed with us in ways that it did not stay with you.
When I was kid, everywhere we traveled around the nation, people would say to me,
“Oh…you’re from Dallas….that’s where Kennedy was killed…”
And whether they meant it or not, there was a patina of shame woven into their words.
“Oh…you’re from that place…”
Everywhere I went, I grew up feeling the shame from an event I didn’t remember. Even when we went to Russia in the early 1990s, the people there knew Dallas for two things:
1) The Dallas Cowboys.
New Russian friends –with whom we shared no language– mouthed the word “Kennedy” to us, and then stood before us in awkward silence no words could have ever vanquished.
But here’s the point not to miss: As a kid growing up in the Preston Hollow neighborhood of Dallas, in the shadows of both the physical buildings and the historical time, nobody ever talked about the Kennedy assassination.
If adults around me ever did mention it, it was in hushed tones. Hushed, pained, perhaps even humiliated, tones. It was unmentionable. It was a heavy pall, a weight in the shoulders of every adult I knew.
And the message I learned and intuited, as a kid, was that I was not to talk about it either.
So it was that I was almost out of high school before I knew for sure which of those downtown buildings was the “School Book Depository,” or where “Dealey Plaza” really was.
The biggest, most momentous thing ever to happen in my hometown.
Something in our backyard that was debated, discussed, and lamented the world over.
But not here. Nobody ever spoke in words about it here. But everybody felt it.
And it was horrible.
It was that sense of guilt that inspired my song.
I wanted to write a song about these adults I knew, growing up. My parent’s friends. My friend’s parents. All those adults who never, ever talked about it, but whose guilt and shame I could palpably feel as a child.
For better or for worse, average folks in Dallas took the Kennedy assassination hard. They took it to heart. Afterwards, there was, in some national circles, a kind of “What’s wrong with Dallas?” debate.
As I’ve said, today however –in the light of dozens more crazed lone-gunmen over decades that have come and gone– we understand that these things just happen sometimes. They happen just about everywhere now, it seems. Crazed gunmen strike lots of places.
But there was a kind of all-pervasive Kennedy guilt that overcame Dallas in the years afterwards. You can ask anybody who was an adult here at the time, and they’ll tell you about it.
You could make a very very strong psychological argument that Dallas’ reputation as a city that always wants to “look good” can be traced back to that very day. You could make the strong argument that, although everybody knew it wasn’t really Dallas’ fault, that many adults here still secretly prayed the last line of the song,
“O dear God, don’t let ’em say it was our fault…”
When I started writing songs, I knew I’d write about this. Not about the assassination, or even really even about Kennedy, but about the people of Dallas. The people with the heaviness in their shoulders, and the fear that they might, somehow, really be guilty.
The Truth of Dallas in 1963
For the record, I don’t think Dallas killed Kennedy. But, as I’ve just said, we’ve always felt the guilt the song hints at.
And, if we are totally honest, some of the guilt had real basis events in and around Dallas at the time. I know that sounds contradictory. So, bear with me. You see, the song itself gets at some of the deeper truth.
The deeper truth is that, in November of 1963, Dallas was an extremely conservative place. The John Birch Society had one of its largest outposts in Dallas. As the song notes, people had, in fact, spit on Adlai Stevenson. Others had pushed around LBJ and Lady Bird on the streets of downtown. The day of Kennedy’s arrival, there were “Wanted for Treason” posters on light poles around the city. There were many other things I could mention. As Casey Stengal said, “You can look it up.”
I have recently found the incredible new book, “Dallas, 1963” which chronicles all of this with staggeringly accurate footnotes and detail. I know of no greater source for understanding the Dallas I grew up hearing about all my life. Details behind the headlines I always knew…
These were known parts of local history. In 1963, “liberals” were, in fact, not tolerated very well. Average folks? They were giddy and uncomfortable that the president was coming.
Dallas was a conservative place.
He was a northeastern liberal.
But! He was also the President. They were glad to see him visit. Puffed up with civic pride.
But, the visit was also controversial. And as the song ironically suggests, I imagine the average person would be pleased to have him back in Washington the next day. Dallas wasn’t a very big city as of yet. It was not the teaming, international city of today. This was the biggest thing ever to happen in anybody’s memory. But nobody was quite sure how to handle it.
So, that’s what I tried to capture in the song…
… That sense of real pride…
… That sense of warriness over a “liberal” coming to Dallas…
… That horrible sense of guilt that descended like a 50-year pall.
I’m very proud of the song. It’s said that the best songs are about what you “know,” and those of us here know this event better than anyone. My friend Alan Gann once told me, “Only somebody from Dallas could write that song.”
I’m grateful for Tim McLemore’s great piano track in the song, and for the unbelievable fiddle-work of the incomparable Reggie Rueffer. He did that fiddle solo in about two-takes. It was amazing to watch/hear.
As I’ve said, hope you like the song.
But, wait, there’s more…
The Past and Future Collide
This history, this song, and even my ministry, would collide in ways I could not expect, when I was appointed as Senior Pastor of Northaven Church more than a decade ago now.
Having grown up here –just up the road from Dealey Plaza, and just down the road from Northaven Church– I suppose these worlds were bound intersect.
For once I was at Northaven, I was reminded of a story I’d heard, years before. In fact, the story was in my mind when I’d written the song, fifteen years before coming to Northaven.
Three days after JFK was gunned down in Dallas, Rev. Bill Holmes, Northaven’s Senior Pastor at the time, preached what became a quite controversial sermon.
The title of the sermon was “The One Thing Worse Than This.” And while I won’t repeat the whole thing here, the gist of it was that this assassination was, truly, the “worst thing” that had ever happened to Dallas.
But, to Holmes, “the one thing worse that this” would be for Dallas not to take a hard look at the harshly polarizing rhetoric and politics of its time…the things I’ve just mentioned…the spitting at Stevenson…the pushing of LBJ…etc…
And Holmes listed one thing he’d been told about that week: that schoolchildren had “cheered” when told of Kennedy’s assassination. It was this last example of intolerance that garnered the most attention. News folks heard about the sermon, and a crew from the CBS Evening News stopped by the church early the next week, and filmed Bill Holmes re-preaching the sermon to an empty sanctuary. (Remember: no videotape in those days…)
I have found a video clip of the sermon! Please watch it below.
Here’s a few quotes from that famous sermon:
“We, the majority of (Dallas) citizens, have gone quietly about our work and leisure, forfeiting the city’s image to the hate mongers and reactionaries in our midst. The spirit of assassination has been with us for some time. Not manifest in bullets but in spitting mouths and political invectives…”
“We have many graces and human decencies of which I am extremely proud. But we cannot, month after month, year after year, sow the seeds of intolerance and hate, and then upon learning of the President’s visit – just throw a switch and hope all rancor will disappear. The vocal, organized and unorganized extremists have captured us – while we were sleeping in the night…”
Walter Cronkite ran lengthy excerpts of it on his newscast.
Then, the you-know-what hit the fan. Holmes got death threats and, at the suggestion of the Dallas Police, went into hiding for a week. City leaders quickly rose to deny that “children had cheered.”(2)
I have found video of the event in 2007, where Holmes finally reveals the name of this teacher, and compellingly answers the critics who claim this never happened. Find it here.
It became one of the seminal events, if not the seminal event, in the history of Northaven Church.
Folks left. Others who stayed were shocked.
They wondered, “Why the outcry?” Holmes had done nothing but speak the truth, after all.
And, even if you somehow choose to deny all the things Holmes listed, the mere fact that he was forced into hiding for a week proves his point, doesn’t it? The reaction to the sermon proved the point of it.
Now, it is sometimes said that “timing is everything,” and some have suggested that perhaps Holmes’ timing for such a prophetic sermon was questionable. Three-days later…while everyone was still grieving…was that the time to make such prophetic statements?
Timing aside, Holmes’ main point reverberates down with us to this day. Hateful speech can contribute to hateful action. As I pointed out two years ago, we don’t like hearing this any more today than we did back then. But it’s always been a truism, in every generation.
No, Dallas didn’t kill Kennedy. But that guilt, that feeling that we might have something to feel guilty about, has driven this town ever since.
Since being at Northaven, I’ve met actual people who were actually there. Meaning, folks who were in the room at the Trade Mart, awaiting President Kennedy. Our friend and Northaven member, Jan Sanders, was among them. I must tell you, it’s been surreal to actually meet folks who were actually there, in that room I picture in the song. Jan says they huddled around a few radios, trying to figure out what was going on….and only did it gradually dawn on them that something truly horrible had happened.
The truth is, the balloons would never fall. The city would never really say, “Welcome to Dallas!”
“Everything Is Different Now”
Or, Is it?
Don Henley sings that line. And everything is different in Dallas now.
But is everything different everywhere?
One thing that’s different is that after decades of silence, people started talking. All credit to the Sixth Floor Museum for that. Opened in 1989, it’s one of the only places I always strongly encourage out-of-towners to visit.
I know it’s been a healing place for everyone who has visited, but especially for us Dallas folk. I cried, almost heaving tears, the first time I went through…just recollecting all this stuff…remembering all that silently-carried burden of all those average folks who lived here…remembering the senseless loss of a great President; who might have merely been tolerated here, but who was deeply loved elsewhere.
So, yes, Dallas finally learned to start talking about it.
But the other thing not to miss is that Dallas is also much different now. Everybody in the city, including the long-timers at Northaven, struggle to remember this. It’s so easy to get caught up in the past you know, and “assume” you know Dallas now.
Politically, for example, Democrats win every county-wide election now, and have for a decade. And as I’ve written numerous times, this is a shift unlikely to reverse itself in any seismic way. Put another way…with all apologies to Austin, Dallas is Texas’ “Bluest” city (In terms of the sheer number of total voters, not percentage…).
Dallas is a genuinely multi-ethnic, international city. Hundreds of thousands of people have moved into the area from elsewhere, bringing with them values that have nudged out our old provincialisms.
Until you understand facts like these, you won’t “get” where Dallas is now.
This means that Northaven –deeply scarred by the reaction the Holmes’ sermon– is no longer a tiny fringe progressive oasis in a conservative desert. If you asked longtimers, that’s really how they’ve seen themselves all these years. In fact, just in Methodist circles, there are easily a half-dozen genuinely “progressive” congregations popping up around the city today.
Northaven haven’t changed.
But Dallas, has around us.
It’s become more like Northaven, and Northaven is less of the odd duck in its midst. (Personally, I believe this is a part of why we’ve grown some in recent years…)
So, as I said at the start, fifty years is a long time. It would be a mistake, deeply wrong, for conservatives or liberals (or anybody in between) to believe Dallas is the city it was fifty years ago.
Having said that, I look around at extremists like Ted Cruz and some in the Tea Party, and I wonder:
“So, how different are we, really?”
And what it seems to me is: the hard core, ultra-conservatism that infected Dallas in 1963, now moves freely in our national politics.
Tea Party rhetoric often sounds very John Birch to me. Or, Google the name “National Indignation Convention,” and be amazed at how similar it is to the Tea Party movement.
More often that I’d like, Ted Cruz sounds like Bruce Alger.
More often that I’d like, unelected leaders like Sarah Palin sound like General Edwin Walker.
And if you didn’t grow up around here, and don’t know those historical leaders, Google them. Or, better yet, give a read to this book I mentioned earlier. It’s amazing.
One more thing is similar then as now, and it’s something that really drove the anger of Bill Holmes in that famous sermon: Ordinary people often refuse to stand-up against their own extremists.
In the 1963, Holmes noted that the average Dallasite was not a “John Birch conservative.”
Nor is the average Republican in our nation today a “Tea Partier.”
(Furthermore: not all who agree with Tea Party principles are “extremists”)
And yet in both cases, in both historical times, a silent majority allowed extremists to be “out-sized” in their political and social influence.
The case of the recent government shutdown is “Exhibit A.” We know now that there were always plenty of votes among moderate Republicans to keep the shutdown from happening in the first place.
But it happened anyway. The extremists in the Tea Party pushed for it, nobody stood up to them, and they got their way.
And what I keep hearing from Republican friends is this:
“Eric, everybody I know is afraid of the Tea Party.”
Let me be clear, I am not afraid of them. I am annoyed by them.
Everybody I know is annoyed by them.
But I know this. What Bill Holmes said in 1963 is still true today: until people stand up to them, nothing will change.
This was precisely the situation in 1963, when Bill Holmes’ called for regular citizens to stand up and reclaim their city. And through a twisting and turning five-decade path, that did happen here. Dallas changed.
But what Holmes said to Dallas 50 years ago, we can say to the nation today:
“It is not too late for us to learn that men can agree to disagree in love and still hold partisan persuasions. Where do we begin?
We have our children.
They were not born hating the President of the United States. They soon learned to imitate their parents. It is not only important that we nurture them in political ideas, but in the even more fundamentals of understanding and respect for those who old a different point of view.
We have our neighborhoods.
When the extremist across the street, or down the block, starts spewing his epithets and hate, he must soon discover that he has a contest on his hands as we confront him with sanity and love.
We have our precincts, where live and vital issues are discussed.
It is time both liberals and conservatives took responsibilities for the reactionaries and extremists in their own parties.”
Everything has changed here. But old issues seem to rear their head in every new generation.
We can learn from the past, though.
Thanks be to God, we don’t ever have to repeat it.
(1) I realize that this was not actually the name of the venue. Kennedy was to be the guest at a lunch in the Dallas Trade Mart. The actual room was called “The Great Hall” which, lyrically, would have worked. But I didn’t know this fact when I wrote/recorded the song. Also, I wanted to have the name “Trade” in there, to hint at where the room was. So, yes, I knew what I was doing when I titled the song this way.
It’s just a song…go with it…
(2) I, for one, have always been puzzled by the tempest over “children laughing.” City leaders, and sincere Dallas historians, continue to deny that it ever happened. However please do not miss this inescapable point: Bill Holmes and his family went into hiding for a week after the sermon. Even if you choose to deny the truth of children clapping, you cannot deny that the reaction to the sermon proved the point of the sermon itself.
I have found video of the event in 2007, where Holmes finally reveals the name of this teacher, and compellingly answers the critics who claim this never happened. Find it here.
Beyond this, another teacher, Joanna Shields (who you can still find in the pews of Northaven every Sunday, to this day) also reports children cheered at her school too.
All the other stuff…spitting on Stevenson…pushing LBJ…the “wanted for treason” poster with JFK’s image…the large John Birch group….all these are undisputed by anyone studying the history. So, it seems patently silly to pretend that debunking the “children cheered” story changes Rev. Holmes’ main point.
It didn’t then. It doesn’t now.
(As always, if you like this post, then “like it” or “share it” on Facebook by clicking the box below, or send it to your friends…so others can see too…and leave a comment…EF)