Black at the Assassination: Classroom Scene, Act I

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy is an event that has held interest in the American public for five decades. Many stories about that tragedy were published and told, but few from the perspective of African-Americans in Dallas who experienced that day on November 22, 1963.

Playwrights Camika Spencer and Kyndal Robertson, both Dallas natives, were tasked to tackle that black perspective head-on, to examine the grief, fear and disappointment among a community in Dallas that had put so much hope in the political future in the nation’s 35th president.

The theatrical productionBlack at the Assassination examines what Dallas looked like for blacks in the early 1960’s and the deep grief that resulted when this national tragedy took place in their own city. The play focuses mainly on the day of the assassination.

The dramatic depiction is the brainchild of TeCo Productions’ Founder and Executive Artistic Director Teresa Coleman-Wash.

“Kennedy was important and revered in the African-American community, but as far as I was able to determine, no story had been told about how black people in Dallas felt about the assassination,” Coleman-Wash said. 

She went on to say, “There was a hush that lingered for years over the community devastated and traumatized almost as though this was something they could not talk about.”

But during readings staged to help develop the script, Coleman-Wash told theGrio that people were very moved to tell their stories. It was that feedback that began to shape the production into vignettes created from research and interviews of people who were either there that day, or old enough to recall the impact of the assassination on their lives.

1963 was a tumultuous year. It was a time of painful, sometimes violence-tainted demands for social change across the south. In May, Birmingham Alabama Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, ordered dogs and water cannon to be used on freedom riders. In June, NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers was murdered outside his home in Mississippi. In August, over 200-thousand people marched on Washington demanding jobs, equality and social change. In September four little girls, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins were slaughtered while attending Sunday school when a bomb ripped though Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Riots erupted leading to the deaths of two more black youths.

It took those bloody days in Birmingham to move JFK to take an assertive stand. As violent confrontations against freedom riders and activists in ’63 rose to a crescendo, the president challenged congress to end Jim Crow— once and for all– saying “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue.” He noted that no white American would willingly trade places with those who endure daily humiliations because of their race. “Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?”

Many held out hope that President Kennedy would lead the nation in the right direction, noting that in October of 1962 when James Meredith braved threats against his life and riots to become the first black student enrolled in Ole Miss, President Kennedy sent 5,000 federal troops to quell the violence.

It was also noted that in October 1960 Dr. King along with about 300 students were arrested in Atlanta participating in a sit-in at Rich’s department store. The students were later released, but King was held on charges of parole violation. It turned out that King was paroled months earlier after driving with a suspended license. He was sentenced to six months of hard labor at Georgia State Prison at Reidsville for the violation, but then, presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, his brother and campaign manager, helped secure King’s release. That intervention was used as political capital to help Kennedy narrowly defeat Richard Nixon in the presidential election.

So there was a lot of hope riding on Kennedy’s presidency, especially in Dallas, a city that had the reputation of boycotting the national civil rights movement being led by Dr. Martin Luther King. Blacks in Dallas were under constant pressure to ignore and shun the national movement for civil rights. Whites had even gone so far as to produce public service announcements with white politicians telling black people to be “calm and patient.”