Race and policing was one point of discussion at a sweeping conversation in Fort Worth about the legacy of the civil rights movement in the decades after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. he conversation came just days before the Sunday anniversary of the assassination. It was part of a series of discussions the Fort Worth Opera is sponsoring as it prepares to premiere a new opera called “JFK." It follows Kennedy’s last hours in Fort Worth and Dallas.
Even the venue became part of the conversation. Former Star-Telegram columnist and KERA newsman Bob Ray Sanders played host in the auditorium of IM Terrell Elementary School. “Before we get started
, I don’t know how many of you know where you are. But I just need to explain to you that you’re on hallowed ground,” Sanders said.
Named for the first headmaster of the city’s first black public school, for decades IM Terrell was the only black high school in segregated Fort Worth. It sat shut down for years after schools were fully integrated, and now is an elementary school. Soon, it will become the site of two magnet programs: One for arts, the other for science and technology.
Bob Ray Sanders was a student here when Kennedy was shot in Dallas, so were the other two African-Americas on stage. Back in 1963, Eddie Griffin, who became a civil rights activist and Black Panther, heard the news huddled with other Terrell students around a transistor radio.
“And we heard the announcement that Kennedy had been shot,” he recalled “And we heard no more for about 30 minutes. And the next announcement was that Kennedy was dead.”
Devoyd “Dee” Jennings, who’s now Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce president, had cut class that morning to go see Kennedy in downtown Fort Worth. He’s the. Jennings heard of Kennedy’s assassination after he returned home to the Butler housing projects with his friends.
“We didn’t want to come to school but we came to school because it was lonesome,” he said. “So we came over to IM Terrell and got with the rest of our classes and it was just a tough day at the school.”
Fort Worth in the ‘60s was a segregated place – African Americans weren’t allowed to live in white neighborhoods. There was a thriving middle class, though, and a booming black business district. Jennings says Fort Worth never saw the level of demonstration that Dallas and other cities did, but the city’s white leaders did respond to the pressure of civil rights activism. “Behind the scenes the powers that be would get together with black leadership and say ‘how do we change some of these things,’” Jennings said. “So you saw more of a gradual smart move in Fort Worth to keep some of the ruckus and the hollering and the riots down that were happening all over the country by doing this quietly.”
Then the debate turned to the Black Lives Matter movement, which sprung up in response to police killings of young African Americans. Jennings called for a change to police culture and the firing of abusive cops. TCU political scientist Jim Riddlesperger said more inclusive hiring and better officer training is part of the solution.
“I think they have to learn better conflict resolution skills. I think they have to raise the level of conflict for a minor event. Because many of these events grow from just nothing. And all of a sudden it escalates into someone getting killed.”
Eddie Griffin argued that the whole criminal justice system needs to be re-organized. He said a school to prison pipeline leads to a disproportionate amount of African Americans incarcerated.
“It’s not just the police and the police attitude. It’s structural racism,” Griffin said.
For Jennings, equality in criminal justice is one of many issues that civil right activists fought for that linger today. He pointed to voting rights, economic opportunity and education equality as other issues.
“I call it a back to the future moment,” Jennings said. “We’ve made some progress but it’s not really enough.”