The Hate Letters: Sorting Through The Dallas Mayor's Mailbag After JFK Was Shot
Throughout November, KERA will mark the 50th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination by taking a closer look at that fateful day, what it meant to the country, how it changed Dallas, and more.
Today, we take a look at hate letters sent to Dallas following the assassination.
After John F. Kennedy was shot 50 years ago, hundreds of folks mailed letters to Dallas, many of them furious at the city.
The letters wound up at Southern Methodist University.
One recent afternoon, Pamalla Anderson pushed a cart into the SMU DeGolyer Library. On it were two boxes filled with hate.
“So we’re going to get some folders out,” she said. “The first one is actually from letters dated the day of the assassination.”
Anderson, the library’s head of public services, knows these letters better than anyone.
Just hours after President Kennedy was killed, people whipped out their pens and typewriters and dashed off their thoughts.
They came from across the country – California, Minnesota, New York – and started pouring in to the Dallas Mayor’s office.
"Screaming into the wind"
Just 48 hours later, Lee Harvey Oswald was killed blocks away from the site of the assassination – and more letters arrived.
Many drip with anger.
Take this one from Massachusetts: “You and the people of your city should hang your heads in shame for the grievous and heinous crime committed in Dallas. This is not a mere accident.”
And this letter from California: “How in heaven could you let Oswald get shot? What kind of police protection do you have there? They must be incompetent.”
Jeffrey A. Engel, director of SMU’s Center for Presidential History, is surprised by the letters, even after reading them many times.
“They’re not writing their congressman,” he said. “They’re not writing their mayor. They’re writing someone else’s mayor. This is almost a sense of just screaming into the wind, which apparently is something people throughout the world feel the very human need to do.”
In recent months, more scholars and researchers have sought out these letters, yearning to know more about the mood of the country in the fall of ‘63.
Some letters are scrawled on scraps of cream and pale blue paper – the ink is smudged, the handwriting hard to read. Others are written in black ink in the neatest cursive. Some typed on business letterhead.
"Stinkin' police department"
All were sent to Dallas Mayor Earle Cabell, who gave his personal papers to SMU.
During JFK’s fateful visit, Cabell rode in the presidential motorcade. Soon after Kennedy was killed, reporters asked him if what happened would tarnish the city’s reputation forever.
“I don’t think that this will hurt Dallas as a city,” Cabell said. “Because I believe that the people of the nation realize that this was not an act of Dallas, not an act of the true thinking of Dallas. This was the act of a maniac.”
But many Americans disagreed.
One letter writer declared: “And if the police were any good, perhaps our president would still be alive.”
Another wrote: “What kind of stinkin’ police department lets a striptease criminal records man kill [Oswald]?”
And another wrote: “I hope the people Dallas are proud of their behavior. Southern hospitality, indeed.”
"Do you own a horse?"
Cabell responded to several of the letters, often defending his town.
But there were notes of support. One even came from Buffalo, where President McKinley was killed. The letter expressed sympathy and understanding for what Dallas was going through.
One child from Minnesota sent a note, saying her teacher had informed her of what had happened to Kennedy.
But she had more pressing questions: Did the mayor have a big home?
More importantly, did he have a horse?
The mayor wrote back.
“I do not live in a house that is nearly so big as the president,” Cabell said. “My house is medium size, has a nice lawn and a few trees in the front and back yard. I have not owned a horse for many years.”
Tucked away in all those folders filled with hate: a little laughter.
Read the letters
Excerpts of some of the hundreds of letters sent to Dallas Mayor Earle Cabell, courtesy of SMU's DeGolyer Library:
Los Angeles: "You've taught us to loathe the lowly ignorance of your citizens -- to loathe your lack of national respect -- & to loathe your complete absence of pride for your own country."
London: "This whole Scandal is like turning over a rock, which your City represents, and to see all crawling lice beneath it."
A junior-high social studies class from Kenmore, N.Y.: "We hope you will have faith in your future and not let this incident destroy your progress."
Waco: "It has been very clear, that the city of Dallas is not so much interested in its own intrinsic fault ... as it is in leading others to believe it was not at fault at all."
Kenton, Ohio: "It is not right that all Dallas should take all the blame for the President's death. Enclosed is a poem (if you can call it that), it expresses of what I'd like to think all America should think and feel."
Little Rock, Ark.: "We have appreciated very much your leadership in the midst of this great tragedy. ... [I]f we remain steadfast in our thoughts and our ideals, if we keep busy with our families and business responsibilities, we will emerge more prosperous, more self confident and with greater character than we otherwise could ever have achieved."
Huntington Park, Calif.: "Of the thousands of ridiculous actions riding the wave-crest of national hysteria, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the inclination to make the City of Dallas Texas a shameful scapegoat for this historical incident, certainly hits an all-time high in zany thinking, but perhaps a retelling of an ancient Islamic Fable may be the key to help us regain our senses."
KERA wants to hear your JFK stories and memories. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We may contact you or use your memory in an upcoming story.