Thursday, February 3, 2022

Review: The Accommodation: The Politics of Race in an American City

From The Accommodation, by Jim Schutze

Open quote In 1950, for the second time in a decade, the City of Dallas was in serious danger of racial warfare. The dynamitings of Black middle-class homes had started again. None of the measures adopted after a wave of bombings ten years earlier had had lasting effect. The tendency of the city for organized and violent white aggression against Blacks seemed ineluctable. It was the chain that tied the city to a bloody past." The Accommodation

This is Jim Schutze's classic 1986 history of race relations in Dallas. Peter Simek in "D Magazine" called it "the most dangerous book in Dallas." It was long out of print, rumored because of pressure by Dallas's white oligarchy. Now it's been re-released. From slavery to Jim Crow to the 1980s, it lays out how Dallas was run, leaving a legacy we still see today. It's eye-opening, a great read, a must read.

Grade: A-

"The Accommodation" opens with the story of racial tensions in Dallas in the early 1950s. Black neighborhoods are being torn down for white development. The City of Dallas says Love Field needs to be expanded, so it uses its power of eminent domain to take Black homes. The city eventually decides that, on further thought, a new runway isn't needed after all, and the confiscated land is sold to private developers for construction of a new segregated white neighborhood. Meanwhile, Black homeowners, being squeezed everywhere and having nowhere else to move, begin to buy homes in white neighborhoods in south Dallas. Whites there respond with dynamite. Police say they don't have enough evidence to make any arrests. When the bombings continue and the Blacks begin shooting back, the business oligarchy that runs Dallas takes command and defuses the crisis, making Dallas safe for development again, at least until the next crisis starts the whole process over.

Everything about how Dallas was run for forty years is encapsulated in that story. Prior to 1978 (later we'll come to what changed that year) Dallas "was a well-run, pre-democratic city-state, ruled by a board of elders who valued wealth and ritual over truth and law." The "board of elders" was the Dallas Citizens Council, a private group of CEOs, bankers, oilmen, and other civic leaders who had their hands on the levers of power in the city. They defused the crisis in the early 1950s by giving the signal to law enforcement to make arrests of the bomb-throwers, by warning the white neighborhood leaders behind the bombers that they would be next if the bombings didn't stop, and by enlisting land developers in their circle to develop new segregated neighborhoods for Blacks (e.g., Hamilton Park just south of the City of Richardson).

The "Accommodation" of the title comes from the tacit agreements between the white oligarchy who ran things and the alliance of Black ministers who had influence in the Black community. The oligarchy did just enough to keep the peace. Later, they delivered token integration. In return, the ministers worked to keep the peace in their community.

Schutze tells these stories and many more. Stanley Marcus is one of the only members of the oligarchy who emerge from this era as a hero. During the "Red Scare" of the 1950s, he defended the Dallas Museum of Art against censorship demands to remove so-called "red art." During the Civil Rights era, he engaged a public relations firm to market desegregation, creating a 20 minute movie that "was shown again and again: to neighborhood groups, discussion groups, schools, and, especially, to employees in firm after firm." Schutze tells the stories of several Dallas mayors who don't come out looking like heroes. Some of Schutze's stories seem like they could be from today's news. Mayor Wallace Savage interpreted Black anger in the face of bombings that police failed to stop as evidence of communist sympathy. "The plan is to gain control of Negro votes by charges such as these, that the police abuse Negroes." The assassination of President John Kennedy dealt to body blow to the oligarchy and its dreams of making Dallas a booming, cosmopolitan city. Schutze tells how the oligarchy tried to defend the city against charges that its climate of hate killed Kennedy.

The "accommodation" began to break down in the 1960s when the Civil Rights movement belatedly came to Dallas. Younger Black leaders in Dallas lost patience with the accommodationists. Then came the Fair Park homeowners' movement. Like the Love Field neighborhoods, the City of Dallas wanted to sweep clean the Black neighborhoods surrounding Fair Park, home of the State Fair of Texas. Only this time, the homeowners, with help from national civil rights activists, resisted. Their first big victory came when they threatened to disrupt the annual Cotton Bowl parade, to be televised nationally. The victory was small, but the symbolism was huge.

Out of the Fair Park homeowner movement came the first Black leaders who seized power without permission from the white community, who understood that power had to be seized, and could never be received as a gift or token. The Fair Park homeowners became the plaintiffs in the federal suit that finally brought down the old at-large election system, depriving the oligarchy of its principal mechanism of political control.
Source: The Accommodation.

That was 1978. "The Accommodation" was written only eight years later. Schutze reports the prediction of an up-and-coming young Black leader, John Wiley Price: "From a position of unfettered power, power for which they owe white people nothing, Price believes Black people in Dallas will one day reach back into the white community to achieve true coalition, rather than accommodation and dependency." John Wiley Price wrote a new foreward to the re-release of "The Accommodation." He calls his long relationship with Schutze "an estranged friendship or prolonged hate relationship." Such is the nature of Dallas politics then and now.

Schutze just recently retired from a career in journalism from which he was personal witness to the last thirty years of Dallas politics. If he could only be persuaded to write volume 2 of "The Accommodation", we would all be wiser and better off.

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