Dallas Citizens Council

By: Russell Stites

Type: General Entry

Published: June 9, 2021

Updated: June 11, 2021


The Dallas Citizens Council (DCC) is a civic organization that substantially shaped the development of Dallas during the twentieth century. It was initiated in 1937 by Robert L. Thornton, the Dallas banker and city booster who had helped secure Dallas as the location for the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936. Thornton conceived of the organization as one made up of only heads of large local businesses who could dedicate substantial resources toward agreed-upon goals without needing further approval from their firms. Founding members included Nate Adams and Fred F. Florence, who had worked alongside Thornton to secure the Centennial and would be key leaders in the DCC. The charter meeting was held by Thornton and fourteen other Dallas business heads on November 12, 1937, at the Baker Hotel in downtown Dallas. After agreeing to the proposed charter and bylaws, Charles F. O’Donnell was elected as the DCC’s first president, with Thornton as vice president.

Ostensibly apolitical, the organization would not endorse candidates in local elections, although individual members were not prohibited from doing so. The DCC was supposed to advance the interests of Dallas as a whole. However, there was a strong conservative and pro-business character to the council. Practicing attorneys, doctors, educators, journalists, and labor leaders were excluded from membership as they did not possess the desired level of control over their respective institutions and employees. Their sectors of the economy were therefore not directly represented in DCC meetings. Moreover, heads of financial institutions, such as banks and insurance firms, were over-represented in DCC leadership compared to representatives of other industries. There was a close association between the DCC and the Citizens Charter Association (CCA), a political organization that slated candidates for mayor and city council. Many DCC members were also members of the CCA and had close personal and business connections throughout the association. DCC members influenced the selection of candidates by the CCA, and the organization secured a close relationship with Dallas city council members and mayors. Several mayors were DCC members: Jean Baptiste Adoue, Jr. (1951–53); Thornton (1953–61); Earle Cabell (1961–64); J. Erik Jonsson (1964–71); Robert S. Folsom (1976–81); Jack Evans (1981–83;, and Thomas C. Leppert (2007–11). Mayors Starke Taylor (1985–87) and Ron Kirk (1995–2001) became DCC members after their time in office. The DCC spearheaded fundraising for various civic organizations and ran public relations campaigns to advance desired bond measures. Gaining the DCC’s support often determined the success of any such campaign. DCC membership also included executives of the Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Times Herald, who could direct their papers (and later, their television stations) to support various causes promoted by the DCC, either through overt endorsements or more subtle management of media coverage.

One of the DCC’s earliest goals was the creation of a new master plan for the city of Dallas which incorporated development of surrounding communities. In 1943 the Dallas city council commissioned Harland Bartholomew to produce a new master plan for Greater Dallas, which closely reflected the organization’s vision. The DCC pushed for the construction of the Dallas Memorial Auditorium (later named the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center) and Victory Park. It promoted various measures to alleviate traffic congestion, including the creation of Central Expressway and DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit). It helped raise the money needed to establish the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School at Dallas, worked with the DISD to create Dallas College (formerly known as the Dallas County Community College District), and took part in various efforts to improve DISD schools, including successfully campaigning for a statewide reform of education funding. It pushed for improvements and expansions of Love Field and even opposed the creation of the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to avoid the loss of business to the municipal airport. In the 1950s the efforts of the DCC, in particular those of founding member Karl Hoblitzelle, to alleviate the city’s Black housing crisis greatly contributed to the establishment of Hamilton Park. The DCC supported artistic institutions in Dallas and ran numerous fund drives to sustain the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and establish the Dallas Business Committee for the Arts. Not all measures backed by the DCC were successful. The organization’s growth-based politics, which invited federal spending, were sometimes in conflict with the region’s rising small-government conservatism. Such a conflict stymied the DCC’s efforts to revitalize West Dallas in the late 1950s. The DCC also unsuccessfully campaigned for the annexation of Highland Park and University Park to Dallas, as voters in those cities rejected the measure.

Following the high-profile demonstrations against school desegregation in Little Rock and New Orleans, the DCC took an active interest in peacefully desegregating the city. In 1961 DCC president C. A. Tatum, Jr., chaired a biracial committee, made up of DCC members and Black community leaders, to prepare the city for school desegregation which was set to begin that fall. These efforts included running a public relations campaign to encourage compliance with desegregation and using the influence of DCC members to encourage the loosening of restrictions against Black patrons at businesses throughout the city. The committee also worked to reign in Black activism during this time to avoid any further racial controversy that might antagonize White Dallasites. DCC member and advertising executive Sam R. Bloom produced the widely shown film Dallas at the Crossroads (1961) to promote peaceful desegregation. The film emphasized that the continued economic growth of Dallas depended on the city maintaining a positive reputation. Dallas received national praise for its peaceful desegregation, and the role of the DCC was locally credited.

Criticism of the DCC’s exclusivity by younger Dallas businessmen prompted the creation of the Dallas Assembly in 1962. It was to be made up of businessmen between the ages of twenty-five and fifty. In 1963 the DCC, the Dallas Assembly, and the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest (co-founded by Jonsson) were chosen to co-host President John F. Kennedy’s November 22nd luncheon in Dallas. One month before Kennedy’s visit, United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson was attacked by a right-wing mob in Dallas; the incident greatly embarrassed the city and its leadership. DCC members sought to ensure that the president was properly received as they feared that any similar incident would reflect poorly on Dallas. Due to such concerns, former DCC president Stanley Marcus urged Kennedy to skip Dallas on his tour of Texas. Kennedy arrived in Dallas as scheduled and was assassinated en route to the luncheon (see KENNEDY ASSASSINATION).

The DCC was exposed to outside media criticism for the first time and was characterized as an exclusionary oligarchy running Dallas politics from behind the scenes. The DCC worked to rehabilitate the city’s image. One measure was to replace Bruce Alger, who represented Dallas in the United States House of Representatives and had contributed greatly to Dallas’s reputation as a reactionary city. Cabell resigned from his position as mayor to successfully run against Alger in the 1964 election. Former DCC president Jonsson was appointed as Cabell’s successor by the six CCA council members without any input from the other members or the public; this action reinforced the image of the DCC as covert and undemocratic. Although Jonsson was elected to several more terms, the power of business elites in Dallas politics was undermined in the years following the assassination. The CCA failed to elect another mayor after Jonsson’s retirement in 1971.

The DCC wished to shed its image as a clandestine group which only represented business interests. In the summer of 1976 the DCC hired attorney Alex Bickley to reinvigorate the organization. Under the direction of Bickley, the council became more organized, and a variety of new committees were created to focus on specific issues. It broadened its membership base. The first female DCC member, Mary C. Crowley, joined in 1977. In 1981 lawyers were finally admitted as members, and Comer Cottrell, the DCC’s first African American member, joined the organization. The DCC president from 1988 to 1998, R. Jan LeCroy, actively sought to increase the number of women and minority members. These efforts included reforming membership dues. The annual dues, only $25 when the DCC was founded, had, by the 1980s, become prohibitively expensive for smaller firms. Tiers based on the size of one’s company were created so that smaller firms paid less, allowing more women and minority business leaders, whose businesses tended to be smaller, to join. The DCC more seriously addressed racial inequality in the city and worked toward increasing economic opportunities. The DCC began playing a more public role in Dallas politics. For example, it supported Ron Kirk for mayor in 1995. However, in December 2018 the DCC once again ceased endorsing candidates in local elections.

Some influential members of the DCC not mentioned above include James W. Aston, John W. Carpenter, Robert Brooks Cullum, Ted Dealey, Walt Humann, Les T. Potter, John M. Stemmons, and John E. Mitchell, Jr. Other notable members include Texas governor William P. Clements, Jr.; Roger Staubach, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and commercial real estate developer; and Halliburton executive and future U. S. vice president Dick Cheney. As of 2021 the Dallas Citizens Council remained an active organization.

Dallas Citizens Council, “About” (https://dallascitizenscouncil.org/page/about), accessed February 17, 2021. Dallas Morning News, May 6, 2019. Robert B Fairbanks,“The Failure of Urban Renewal in the Southwest: From City Needs to Individual Rights,” Western Historical Quarterly 37 (Autumn 2006). Darwin Payne, Big D: Triumphs and Troubles of an American Supercity in the 20th Century (Dallas: Three Forks Press, 1994). Darwin Payne, Dallas Citizens Council: An Obligation of Leadership (Dallas: Dallas Citizens Council, 2008).

Categories:

  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Civic Leaders
  • Organizations
  • Associations
  • Politics and Government
  • Civic and Community Leaders
  • Urbanization

Time Periods:

  • Great Depression
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century

Places:

  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Russell Stites, “Dallas Citizens Council,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 20, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/dallas-citizens-council.

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June 9, 2021
June 11, 2021

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