Dallas Historian Reflects on Bush Complex Debate, SMU History

April 23, 2007

Many thanks to Michael Phillips for this lengthy and detailed commentary on the history of SMU and the recent debate over the Bush Library, Museum, and Institute.  Phillips, the author of White Metropolis, a provocative and prize-winning history of race relations in Dallas that ought to be read by everybody who lives here and anybody who cares about the city, has followed the on-campus debate from afar.  Here he draws on his knowledge of the histories of Dallas and SMU, ammassed over decades as a reporter and historian, to place the recent debate in what he sees as its historical context.


On the surface, it seems like such a perfect fit.

George W. Bush probably never expected to encounter resistance and protests when his cronies announced that his presidential library and a related “think tank” would open on the Southern Methodist University campus. The “Institute for Democracy” would be funded by an unbelievable proposed half-billion dollar endowment. Corporate CEOs, Arab petro-states and rich, right-wing heirs giving $10 million to $20 million a pop would endow the Institute and its mission to shape how history views Bush 43’s presidency. According to the New York Daily News, the Institute would hire neo-conservative scholars who would be expected to crank out “papers and books favorable to the President’s policies.”

Bush probably reasoned that SMU represented the reddest of campuses in the heart of that reddest of Republican states, Texas, and that his library and the Institute for Democracy would be warmly greeted. Yet, on April 11, Southern Methodist University’s faculty senate passed by a more than two-to-one margin two resolutions calling for the Institute for Democracy to not use the SMU name and to be officially separate from the university. The senate narrowly rejected, by an 18-15 vote with two abstentions, a stronger measure that would have allowed the Bush library and policy institute to have no official relationship with the university.

SMU professors have resisted having their school associated with the Bush administration because of the president’s policies in Iraq, his record on civil liberties, his executive order that severely restricts scholarly access to presidential archives, and the fear that the Bush think tank will simply be a propaganda factory lying about the president’s record and the multiple failures of his domestic and foreign policies.

This reaction caught Dallas and the Bush White House off-guard. SMU lay within a Dallas inburb called Highland Park, generally perceived as a right-wing Republican Bantustan. Landscape architect Wilbur David Cook developed Highland Park in 1907 as a hideaway for the wealthy as Dallas itself increasingly filled with African Americans, Mexican Americans, Jews from Eastern Europe and other so-called “minorities”. Completely surrounded by Dallas, Highland Park incorporated as a separate town in 1913 and bitterly resisted attempts at annexation by its urban neighbor. Highland Park became the residence of company executives and bankers who founded the mini-city as a congenial tax dodge. Residents avoided higher city taxes while Dallas provided them with water at much lower cost even as rates climbed for city residents.

As noted by the Center for Responsive Politics, residents of the university’s 75205 zip code donated more to Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign than from any other zip code in the country. The neighboring zip code located just to the north, 75255, ranked third in Bush campaign donations. Highland Park’s hyper-Republicanism has been defined by elitism and negrophobia. The median family income is about $150,000 a year (about $100,000 higher than the U.S. median.) Whites makes up 97.3 percent of Highland Park’s population. Latinos make up only 2.7 percent of the populace (compared to 12.5 percent for the United States as a whole.) African Americans are as rare as a Highland Park Democrat, making up a mere 0.4 percent of the city’s residents (compared to 12.3 percent in the U.S. population.) As of 2005, only six African Americans attended Highland Park High, along with 65 Mexican Americans (out of about 1,900 students.)
In short, Highland Park resembles one of those whites-only South African resorts in the days of apartheid.

Highland Park’s segregation makes SMU’s black students often feel isolated. “The only blacks that you’re going to see here either work here or go to this school,” said 23-year-old Brent Welch, an African American college student who was interviewed for the “Stories in America” blog. “When I first came here, it was culture shock. I hated it. I just felt out of place. During spring break, people would ask, where are you summering? Summering, what is that? I’m going home. I knew it was a rich school, but I didn’t realize it was this rich. They have two names for this school: the Harvard of the South and Southern Millionaires University.”

SMU made the national news twice in the years immediately leading up to the Bush library controversy. In 2005, Highland Park students, during an unsanctioned yearly tradition called senior “Thug Day,” turned the campus into a giant minstrel show, in which students wore “Afro wigs, fake gold teeth and baggy jeans. On Fiesta Day, which was to honor Hispanic heritage, one student brought a leaf blower to school,” imitating the Hispanic landscapers and gardeners who toil at Highland Park estates, according to the Dallas Morning News. Students interviewed by the newspaper dismissed the negative reaction of the NAACP and other groups to the racial stereotyping as “overblown.”
Two years earlier, the SMU chapter of the Young Conservatives of America, in an apparent lame attempt to satirize affirmative action, held a bake sale in which cookies were sold at different prices based on the buyer’s race or gender. The YCA charged white men $1 per cookie, white women 75 cents, Hispanics 50 cents and African Americans 25 cents.

The young Bush Republicans belonging to the YCA apparently felt that African Americans and Mexican Americans receive an unfair advantage from affirmative action, oblivious that whites still reap benefits from the affirmative action programs called slavery and segregation. The YCT apparently felt programs increasing minority enrollment in colleges represented an unreasonable policy in a country where blacks, Latinos and women, still get paid less for the same work, still have fewer opportunities for job advancement, have a harder time getting business loans, enjoy fewer job opportunities, suffer from inferior city services in their neighborhoods, receive markedly lower quality health care and live shorter, less healthy lives, than whites.

“The reality is that they’re ignorant of the lives of nonwhites – it’s like a parallel universe,” said Charles Gallagher, a sociology professor at Georgia State University, speaking of the Highland Park students participating in Thug Day. “. . . If they have interactions with blacks or Hispanics, it’s typically someone serving them a soft drink or the Mexican who cuts their lawn.” As Gallagher told the Dallas Morning News, in Highland Park, “[y]ou have a community of adolescents who live in a complete white bubble.”

Highland Park residents, curiously enough, have nicknamed their community “the Bubble.” President Bush shares the cluelessness of the Highland Park High students when it comes to people who differ from him in color or income. Bush once famously remarked to the Reverend Jim Wallis, leader of anti-poverty group Call to Renewal, that, “”I don’t understand how poor people think.” Bush then, in a moment of rare candor, described himself as a “white Republican guy who doesn’t get it, but I’d like to.” Bush, of course, has isolated himself with sycophantic advisers fearfully echoing the stray thoughts in his head, leading Newsweek in a 2005 cover to photo-shop him into a floating bubble. The president in a bubble thought his library would fit perfectly in the Highland Park bubble.

What Bush didn’t realize is that SMU and Highland Park are not synonymous. The university, though still overwhelmingly white, represents a rainbow coalition compared to its host city. Latinos make up 7.6 percent of the student body, while African Americans make up 6.3 percent. When Asians and other groups are added, people of color comprise 21.6 percent of the student enrollment.

SMU also has a high percentage of Jews and other religious minorities than Highland Park. Because of diversity programs, low-income SMU students represent a higher proportion of the university’s population than the poor represent in Highland Park. In short, SMU is blacker, browner, more Jewish, and less wealthy than its host city. The same can be said of the SMU faculty. This creates a sometimes subtle, though important, difference in the university’s political atmosphere. Though SMU is highly conservative overall, liberals form a vibrant, activist minority large enough to be heard and even shape campus life.

When the Young Conservatives of Texas held their offensive bake sale, they provoked angry reaction from enough students that the university to shut down the fundraiser after about 45 minutes. In all that time, the Young Conservatives made only $1.50 in sales. Matt Houston, 19, was one of the students who got the university to stop the racist event. “My reaction was disgust because of the ignorance of some SMU students,” said Houston, an African American. “They were arguing that affirmative action was solely based on race. It’s not based on race. It’s based on bringing a diverse community to a certain organization.”

Houston does not represent a solitary progressive voice in SMU history. Past moments of dissent, however, have generally been concealed, forgotten or denied. SMU reflects the larger culture of the Dallas area. Dallas enjoys a rich history of political protest, one that has been largely erased by an insecure, paranoid city leadership.

Buried beneath SMU, and the Dallas area’s, apparent monolithic conservatism, however, rests a past in which Socialists and Populists in the early twentieth century won Dallas city council seats, in which the International Lady Garment Workers Union and the United Auto Workers fought bloody battles against hired company goons during the great Depression, and where African Americans and Mexican Americans fought a patient and dignified battle against discrimination during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

SMU also enjoys a rich history of faculty and student protest. While the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, formed specifically in the antebellum years because Southern ministers largely refused to condemn slavery, the Methodist church has a deeper tradition of non-conformity and independence. Methodist circuit riders in the early 19th century were among the first white Christian ministers to evangelize slaves, to baptize African Americans, and to give blacks a forum to preach before white believers. Early Methodists sought not just salvation, but justice. While the Southern Methodist church thoroughly collaborated with the peculiar institution, and for decades stood silent or actively endorsed segregation, many of the Methodist faculty at the Perkins School of Theology have closely adhered to the democratic ideals of the early 19th century church.

Like much of Dallas during the Red Scare decade of the 1950s, the SMU campus knuckled under to right-wing intimidation. In 1951, most of Dallas reacted with indifference upon publication of an ugly anti-Semitic screed, Iron Curtain Over America, written by the chair of the SMU English Department, John Owen Beaty. The SMU faculty, however, became the only voice in the city outside of the Jewish community to loudly object to Beaty’s work and urge his academic censure.

In Iron Curtain, Beaty denied that the Eastern European Jews who represented the bulk of the American Jewish population descended from the Biblical Israelites. Most Jews, he claimed, descended from Khazars, a “belligerent tribe” of “mixed stock, with Mongol and Turkic affinities” that, while living between the Ural Mountains and the Caspian Sea, collectively converted to Judaism in the 8th or 9th century C.E. Khazars eventually provoked the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, he said, while immigrant “Jews” in the United States represented a communist fifth column.

Khazar Jews, Beaty charged, took over the Democratic Party, promoting the crypto-socialism and racial liberalism embodied in the 1930s New Deal. Jews then provoked the United States to enter World War II, Beaty claimed. “Our alien-dominated government fought the war for the annihilation of Germany, the historic bulwark of Christian Europe,” he shrieked in italics. Just six years after American troops had liberated concentration camps in western Germany, Beaty denied the Holocaust happened, labeling the claim that Nazis murdered millions of Jews a fraud launched to justify the slaughter of Aryans and, after 1948, to blackmail the West into political and financial support of Israel. Khazars, Beaty claimed, stood on the verge of world domination.

Beaty’s message reached a broad audience, going through nine printings by 1953. SMU President Umphrey Lee had ignored letters complaining of Beaty’s anti-Semitism dating back to 1947. The Public Affairs Luncheon Club, a Dallas women’s organization, adopted a unanimous resolution backing Beaty and requesting that SMU investigate the faculty’s philosophy and values. The SMU faculty proved slow to respond to Beaty’s paranoid anti-Semitism, but the school’s professors provided Dallas’ few voices of conscience during this embarrassing episode.

Assistant Professor Paul Boller, an historian, blasted Beaty’s book in the student newspaper, the SMU Campus, as “full of distortions, omissions, and half truths.” Aware that Time Magazine was about to publish a story on Beaty and his claims, Boller in 1954 successfully persuaded the rest of the faculty to take a stand, asking his peers, “How would it look if there was no comment?” In February of that year, the SMU faculty approved, by a 114-2 vote, a joint statement condemning Iron Curtain Over America.

Even as the Dallas Morning News dismissed the controversy as a trivial ideological battle between professors, the faculty embarrassed the SMU board of trustees into issuing a timid rebuke. As meager as this response was, the actions of the SMU faculty represented the only vocal opposition to Beaty registered in Dallas’ gentile community. Finally, when Beaty’s enabler Umphrey Lee retired the same year, Willis Tate took over the SMU presidency and, in a direct meeting with Beaty, ordered the department chair to end his racist tirades.

SMU students and faculty played a more decisive and heroic role in Dallas’ civil rights movement. Dallas elites tried to carefully stage-manage token desegregation, working through a Committee of 14, that included seven older African Americans acceptable to the white establishment. The group had managed to slowly implement limited desegregation across the city. Younger African Americans and their white supporters, however, refused to accept merely symbolic redress on a fundamental issue of social justice. In the spring of 1960 a group of 58 white and two black SMU theology students sat in at the University Drug Store across the street from the campus. When they refused to leave the lunch counter, owner C.R. Bright hired a fumigation service that pumped insecticide inside the store. Most of the students remained seated, covering their faces with handkerchiefs.

The brave action of the SMU students, though covered up by a Dallas media blackout on civil rights protests, inspired similar acts of direct action across the city and quickened the pace of desegregation. The day after the SMU students were gassed, African American attorney W.J. Durham publicly admitted that negotiations carried on by the Committee of 14 had broken down. Protestors targeted the downtown Titche-Goettinger Department store and 200 angry students returned to the University Drug Store for a five-hour protest.

By May 1961, the spiral of demonstrations threatened Dallas’ national image. The general manager of Detroit’s Metropolitan Opera Company announced that it would no longer play to segregated audiences, specifically mentioning Dallas and Atlanta as cities notified of the new policy. Facing the threat of business boycotts, the Committee of 14 engineered desegregation in downtown Dallas. On July 26, 1961, the Committee of 14 took 159 black patrons to 49 downtown restaurants and lunch counters where they were served without incident. Jim Crow died a much quicker death at Dallas lunch counters because of SMU activism.

If SMU didn’t compare to Berkeley or Columbia University in terms of student activism in the 1960s, its response to the needs of African American students compares favorably to other Texas colleges and universities. SMU football star Jerry Levias broke the Southwest Conference’s color barrier in the mid-1960s, well before schools such as the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University, which fielded all-white gridiron teams until the early to mid-1970s.

That SMU represented a relatively progressive campus on racial issues becomes clear when one compares the response of the school’s administration to protests by black students on May 1, 1969 to the reaction to a simultaneous student action by Texas A&M President Earl Rudder.   That day, a group of 34 black SMU students belonging to the Black League of Afro-Americans and African College Students occupied President Willis Tate’s office for five hours. They presented a list of demands, including the hiring of two black staff members to assist prospective African American students, expansion of black study courses, and provision of a building for use as a black social center.

Dr. Tate agreed to all the student demands except one calling for recruitment of 500 additional African American students for the next fall semester. SMU at that time had only 50 African American students, mostly in graduate school, out of a total of 9,500, but Tate insisted that school had the prerogative to set admissions standards. In spite of this temporizing on genuine integration, SMU Vice President Thomas E. Broce praised the students, telling the press, “It was a very constructive and healthy discussion. We feel and the students feel we have a better university for it.”

The SMU meeting stood in stark contrast with the almost simultaneous confrontation that took place at Texas A&M where 15 students identifying themselves as the Afro-American Society presented a list of eight demands to Dick Bernard, special assistant to President Rudder. Expressing anger at the tokenism still prevailing at A&M six years after its supposed integration, the students sought recognition of the Afro-American Society as a campus organization; the immediate hiring of a black counselor to work as liaison between black students and the administration and the right of black students to approve the counselor’s selection; investigation of recruitment policies at the still almost all-white A&M athletic department and the expansion of athletic scholarships to black athletes. “If the demands are not met by the third week of September, 1969, the Afro-American Society will take appropriate action,” the society proclaimed. “We will meet force with force, understanding with understanding, and restraint with restraint.”

Unlike Willis Tate, Rudder and the A&M board later rejected changes “thrust upon this institution under the ugly veil of threat or demand,” including recognition of the Afro-American Society. In a May 27 letter, Rudder turned down black studies courses. “As to the idea of ‘special courses on African history’ and the like, I am against them,” Rudder wrote. ” . . . I just don’t believe that ‘special’ courses in anything which lack either academic value, sufficient demand or a college able to offer them should be included in the curriculum.”

SMU still has far too few African Americans on its faculty and in the student body, but many professors have fought to make the campus and the larger Dallas community more aware of black history and culture. An SMU theology professor and his continuing education students forced the city of Dallas in the early 1990s to confront an ugly chapter of its past. In the 1980s and 1990s, Dr. William Farmer taught a class at SMU that studied a fire that destroyed much of Dallas in 1860 and was blamed on African Americans. The fire resulted in widespread paranoia about a possible slave revolt and resulted in the lynching of three black men. Farmer, who later converted to Catholicism and taught at the University of Dallas, successfully lobbied the Dallas park board in 1991 to rename a grassy patch of freeway easement “Martyr’s Park” in reluctant tribute not only to President John Kennedy, assassinated near the site, but also in honor of Samuel Smith, Patrick Jennings and Cato, the three slaves blamed for the 1860 fire. The park sits near where railroad workers uncovered the bodies of the hanged slaves.

Dallas doesn’t like to confront its past and so, in the case of Martyr Park, it took away with one hand what it gave with the other. Almost a decade after the park board approved a new name for Dealey Annex, no marker proclaimed the rare undeveloped Dallas turf as Martyr’s Park and no sign explained the significance of the location or the site’s ambiguous name. To reach Martyr’s Park, one had to pass underneath a bridge, following a pathway smelling of urine. Rather than explanatory plaques, a visitor confronted the empty liquor bottles, abandoned shopping carts and unoccupied bedding that marked the spot as a homeless village.

Farmer, a man of quiet dignity who found in his Christian faith the inspiration to participate in Dallas civil rights movement, had evangelical hopes for the park, hoping greater knowledge of the city’s racial past might pave the way to social justice in the future. Before he died of cancer, Farmer found it predictable that the leadership of the city could not face the past squarely. “Dallas is unlike Chicago – it doesn’t know about its fire,” Farmer said. ” . . . It’s like a family going through a trauma, but suppressing the memory. The past is forgotten, but essential to coming to health is recalling.”
Dallas has done all it could to demean Farmer’s accomplishment in getting Dealey Annex renamed Martyr’s Park, but the effort of SMU faculty to resist the creation of an SMU Bush think tank represents a continuation of Farmer’s work. Farmer wanted Dallas to remember a past incident of social oppression in order to build a better tomorrow.

Opponents of the Bush library hope that the folly of the Bush years won’t disappear down an Orwellian memory hole created courtesy of the Institute for Democracy. In resisting the library, SMU’s faculty hope to preserve memory and prevent future catastrophes like the Iraq War. In this effort, they stand on the shoulders of too-often forgotten SMU activists of the past.