Fifty-two years ago, President John F. Kennedy woke up in Fort Worth and went on to eternity.
A statue at Main and Eighth streets now marks the site of his last public speech, but a historic site across the block remains unmarked.
When Kennedy spoke in front of a hotel on the drizzly morning of Nov. 22, 1963, over the crowd to his left he could see the old Majestic Theater.
On Oct. 22, 1959, the Majestic hosted a Baptist pastor from Alabama on his only appearance in Fort Worth.
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Almost four years after Rosa Parks’ 1955 breakthrough in Montgomery, it was the first time African-American patrons were allowed to come in the Majestic’s front door and sit on the lower floor.
Finally, Fort Worth heard the message of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The era of King and Kennedy in Fort Worth — and the changes then and since in this city and America — were topics for two symposia last week in the Fort Worth Opera panel discussion series, “JFK: Five Decades of Progress,” in part a preview for the opera’s April 23 world premiere of the new JFK.
Expert panels remembered Fort Worth in the era of Jim Crow segregation, and how Kennedy’s visit came as the city teetered uneasily on the edge of change.
The new opera JFK is about the President’s last night in Fort Worth.
The guest list for the $3 breakfast had been rearranged to include 40 local African-American Democrats. And the Hotel Texas itself, now the Hilton Fort Worth, had relented on segregation policies after an African-American federal agent on the advance team had been turned away.
Fort Worth’s downtown department store supercenter of the era, Leonards, had taken down its “white” and “colored” restroom and water fountain signs years earlier. But some of the other department stores remained segregated until just before Kennedy’s visit.
(There is an old town tale that the city’s skyline was first outlined in lights for Kennedy. The skyline lights began with two buildings in 1959 and spread in 1960, but 1963 was the first time they were turned on before Thanksgiving. “Spectacular,” Kennedy said.)
I won’t retell the panelists’ stories, covered well at keranews.org, but one topic literally arched over the entire evening: segregated public education at the old I.M. Terrell High School, where one panel gathered on the stage of what will soon become Fort Worth’s science-technology magnet school.
We came to [I.M. Terrell High] school after the assassination because we were just lonesome. … It was just a tough day at school.
Dee Jennings, Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce
Panelists were asked how far we have come.
Later, one Arlington reader offered his own answer.
Mark Liberto, 60, an elected Republican precinct chair, saw my Twitter photo of the civil rights symposium and tweeted back a snarky, “Am I supposed to be impressed?”
I called to ask what he meant.
“I think it’s time black people stopped bringing up racism,” said Liberto, a perennial Arlington City Council candidate.
“They ought to just shut up. Let it go. It’s history. Stop talking about it. I don’t hear white people talking about racism.”
I noticed that.