'Black at the Assassination': New play illuminates overlooked voices in Dallas

King, who visited the city twice, was said to have left disappointed in the lack of participation and interest in his rallies.

So there was a story to be told to the new generation of Dallas residents. And in true griot style, the play allowed art to intersect with history. Co-playwright Camika Spencer said “The play allowed us to put a face on the Dallas civil rights movement in a way that is not being taught. We learned as children of the ‘70’s the national role, but we were not made aware of how much of a part Dallas played in the overall struggle for civil rights.”

Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1957 making segregation illegal, the Dallas of the ‘60’s was the largest American city where segregation was still practiced.  She told theGrio that in 1963, the KKK was still a powerful force in the city, and the political conversation about civil rights was controlled by whites.

Aptly, the play has an important classroom scene where elementary school students examined the significance of the president’s visit to Dallas. The classroom is a significant setting to depict a time when desegregation was at the core of the civil rights movement. “Why should I want to go to school with white people?” a student asks, “…they don’t want us and I don’t want them.”  The vignette was important says Spencer, because as she put it, “Showed how children were processing segregation and their personal expectations at the time reflected how civil rights were being justified and suppressed.”

But the death of the president did effect change in Dallas. Spencer told theGrio that as she got deeper into researching the play, the information gathered grew her from the inside. “My identity was verified as a person of Dallas.”  She went on to say, “With each interview and each story that was told to me, my love for my city grew even more.”

The play’s co-writer Kyndal Robertson told theGrio that the vignettes were true accounts of what happened in the classroom, at meetings and in church. The writing team sought out people who were present in that time, and they were amazed by their responses. “Nobody though to ask what black people felt in Dallas and at first they were slow to open up. But as we continued to talk and share experiences we heard from others, we would get amazing stories of historical accuracy.”

It was recounted in the interviews the somber and painful black church services that followed the assassination in Dallas. The play painstakingly recreates the mood in song and images described by theater-goers as “powerful and evocative.”

There was a scene in the play where a group of teachers gathering for a strike, pondered what action should be taken to speed desegregation of the schools. Should it be immediate open protests or a more patient approach to support school board candidates who would champion desegregation? The calm and patient approach had led to continued frustration and the feeling of powerlessness. The philosophy of patience and acceptance was supported and endorsed by the white establishment at the time. Whereas violent confrontation had the potential for the chaos and bloodshed that was being played out on the national stage, Dallas never experienced open insurrection or bloody confrontations in its struggle for desegregation.

Dallas forged its own path toward civil rights. Texas favorite son Lyndon B. Johnson became the next president in succession. He fought for and signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. And Ron Kirk became the first African-American mayor of Dallas in 1995.

He is quoted as saying,
”In my mind, I’m the fifth first black mayor of Dallas, because people don’t realize [former Mayor of Los Angeles] Tom Bradley, [former Mayor of Atlanta] Maynard Jackson, [former Mayor of San Francisco] Willie Brown, and [former Mayor of Kansas City and current Missouri congressman] Emmanuel Cleaver, all were either born in or within 30 miles of Dallas.”

And that’s an enduring legacy rooted in a civil rights movement that struck its own path.

Follow Will Wright on Twitter: @willjwright