by Barry Houston Phillips
Editor’s Note: The following is the full version of an interview with Jim Kersey. An edited version appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of Dallas Voice.
At the age of 85, Jim Kersey has never seen, before or since, a day like Nov. 22, 1963. He remembers that day and the 50 years of change and growth that was set in motion during the thousand days of the administration of President John F. Kennedy.
Dallas Voice: Well Jim, are you ready to time travel back 50 years?
Jim Kersey: Yes, let’s do it. Don’t forget, I have been around the block a few times since then!
Ok, take me to November 1963 and where you were in your life and your career. In 1963, I was 35 years old, which meant I was certainly an adult. I had already gone to college and graduate school and had lived in Dallas for about three years and was at Southwestern Medical School. I worked there in the department of psychiatry but had been offered a job in Fort Worth as director of the Mental Health Association. I had not particularly wanted to come to Fort Worth because people who lived in Dallas thought of Fort Worth at the time as a “jumping off place”, and I too had that impression of it. I really began to like it though, and in the spring of 1963, I bought a house in Fort Worth which I am still in to this day. I can always remember when I bought the house because it was the year of the Kennedy assassination.
November 22nd. In the third week of November, I went to Washington to a meeting I believe for the National Association of Mental Health and it was to conclude at the end of that week on Friday, the 22nd. I had been in meetings almost all of that week but, on Thursday, I walked over to the White House to take a tour because in those days, you could just walk up and say, “I want to come in,” and they let you in. While we were in one of the rooms on the tour, we suddenly heard all this commotion in the hallway. We asked what it was all about, and one of our guides said that the president was leaving, and a helicopter was coming to pick him up because he was on his way to Texas.
I finished my tour and went back to my meetings. The conference ended the next day, the 22nd, and I was wanting to take some time off, so I got on a train to go to New York City. The train left late morning, and when we stopped in Philadelphia, the conductor walked down the aisle announcing that the president had been shot. Everyone was exclaiming that he had been shot in Dallas.
Of course, we all wanted to know more, but no one knew anything more at that point. We found a man in one of the coaches who had a portable radio, so we were all hovering over him trying to hear any news at all. He turned it up as loud as it would go, but being on a train, we could hardly hear anything. But while listening to that radio, they did, in fact, announce that Kennedy had died. It was another hour and a half from Philadelphia to New York, so during that time, we knew nothing.
But when we arrived in Penn Station, they already had extra-edition newspapers out, and the first thing I did when I got off the train was to buy a newspaper. I remember it cost a nickel. Of course, the news was still sketchy at that early hour, and I, like everyone else, was just bewildered. I got to one of the few available telephone booths and called my secretary in Fort Worth, and I know in a very accusatory tone asked her, “What IS going on down there?” All she could do was cry. She didn’t know what to say. It was all very strange.
It was the first and only time that I had been in New York, and the city was literally entirely shut down. Broadway was closed. All the theatres were closed. What people you saw were wandering around dazed and stunned. I don’t know how they managed to do it, but already the windows of the stores were draped in black.
I stopped in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and it was packed to overflowing with people praying for President Kennedy. They actually had something that looked like a draped coffin at the front altar, and people were filing by it as if it were an actually a viewing for funeral. I had never seen anything like it. So I knew then I that I did not want to stay in New York but needed to return home.
Were you hesitant to return home? No, not at all. I wanted to return home. I just wanted to get out of New York. I needed to be home. I think that is what most people want when they are in a state of such stress. I remember going into a Delta Airlines reservation office. Then, you could just walk in and make a reservation without any problem.
I told the airline agent that I wanted to change my reservation and he wanted to know where I was going, and I said “Dallas,” and he just went off ranting and raving about Dallas. I quickly said, “Oh I don’t live in Dallas, I live in Fort Worth!” I wanted to distance myself from Dallas but not from home. So I came back to Texas, and all I remember then was sitting and being glued to the TV for days. It was such a terrible time.
When you got off the plane at Love Field, did you sense any change in the air? Well, what I did sense was the extreme grief with everyone, everywhere. Curiously, I remember some people saying, “Well, what did you expect in Dallas? They spit on Adlai Stevenson.” Indeed, that incident had happened only a short time before in Dallas. Now remember too, practically everyone here was Democrat, we just didn’t have any Republicans in Texas to speak of. I believe that Eisenhower carried Texas perhaps because he was born here and was the first Republican president that we had had in a long time — the first since Hoover. So, at the time of the President’s visit, there was a lot of animosity everywhere toward Dallas, and I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that the Republicans had acted so nasty — as they still do, I might add!
The media coverage of the assassination of President Kennedy was unparalled at the time. What did this phenomenon taking place in our living rooms say to you about this newly realized power of television? One has to remember that living in those days was really like living in a different time from now. It was as if you were to go to a foreign country today, that’s how different life was back in 1963. We sorta took television and its influence for granted then.
At the time, I really didn’t think that it was really doing all that much, but now, I see that it made radical differences in our lives. I remember that when Kennedy was running against Nixon, that it was the television debate between the two that threw things in Kennedy’s favor. Kennedy was bright, handsome, articulate while Nixon was sweaty, washed out, nervous and insecure. The television camera caught all of that.
At the time, did you regret the fact that you were not at home for the President’s actual visit to Dallas? No, after it was all over, I felt a real closeness to the President having been in the White House the day before he died. Actually, too, when he was running for President, he came to Fort Worth and I made a point of it to go see him then. I saw him and listened to his talk.
How close were you to him? Did you get any sense of his magnetism? I wasn’t all that close but, oh yes, you could really feel his charisma. He was handsome, youthful, and he gave the promise of hope. Jackie was just beautiful, and that whole Camelot feeling did exude from them. Well, remember, prior to them were the Eisenhower’s, at that time the oldest president ever elected, and then going back were the Trumans, and then Roosevelts. They were all older people. And then here comes the youngest president ever elected.
Camelot. Was that a proper description of that three-year era of Kennedy’s presidency? Yes, but also glamour is what I think of when I think of the Kennedys. When I came along, we were already in a period of austerity because of the Depression, and World War II was just around the corner. I always said I lived a deprived life as a child!
From one calamity to another! Yes, but we got through the Depression, and then we lived through World War II and got through that. Truman took over from Roosevelt and was older and then the oldest president, Eisenhower, came along. But then suddenly, the Kennedys breathed new, fresh life into the White House. So Camelot was indeed a really perfect term for the feeling and energy of his administration.
Kennedy’s death was only about five and half years before Stonewall, which is credited generally for bringing the agenda of the gay rights movement to the forefront of the consciousness of the late 60’s generation. But in the early ’60s, was there any awareness of any gay rights agenda at the time? The term “gay rights” I don’t think had even been coined, at least not to my knowledge. We certainly knew the term “civil rights”, and I remember very vividly we were all in the efforts for black people. It was all very obvious that they were being denied their rights. The people really took to the streets and held marches. I remember joining marches here in Fort Worth that went down Main Street.
Then, civil rights only pertained primarily to racial equality. Right. I don’t think it ever occurred to anyone that gay rights were being overlooked as well. There wasn’t any such thing that I was aware of. I think in those days that you just simply accepted the fact that there were gay people around, but it was never discussed, at least not openly. I never ever heard the word gay used in public or in the media in that sense. It was all very “hush-hush”. I remember as early as about 1950, someone did ask me if someone was gay. I honestly had no idea what they were talking about.
So, how would you have referred to someone’s gay sexual orientation? Well, we would say, “Does he know Dorothy?” or another term, “Is he a ribbon clerk?” or ‘Does he have lace curtains?” And all of this was strictly underground. None of it was discussed openly. So you know, when anything has to be driven underground, it’s already out of control. It was just simply not dealt with in the open.
Did Dallas at the time have any attitudes toward sexual orientation that were different from other major cities in the U.S.? Possibly, Dallas being much more conservative and in the center of the Bible belt was certainly different from San Francisco and New York. But then, even San Francisco was never referred to as a “gay” city but New York was known to have its own gay area, Greenwich Village. Even Dallas’ Oak Lawn in the late 1950s was not a gay area. It didn’t become that until later.
Homosexuality was illegal at the time, correct? Oh, yes, there were sodomy laws in Texas. Ironically, I was called for jury duty once in about 1958, and the first case that came up was a sodomy case, which was a felony. However, I was not allowed on the jury because I did not own property in Dallas. Also, women could not serve on juries if they were not married. Homosexuality was never, ever discussed because just to be associated with it could mean that you would lose your job and be disgraced.
Did you ever see that happen first hand? Well, yes, probably. But mainly I would read about it in the newspaper. When I was a teenager, I remember the term that they would use in newspapers was “perversion”, and I didn’t know what that meant. So, I got a dictionary to look it up. I was so naïve. I remember newspapers referred a lot to “perverse behavior”.
A recent documentary on PBS called “City of Hate” was based on how Dallas was viewed immediately after the assassination. Did you ever think that about Dallas before November 22, and do you think that is a fair label to give Dallas in retrospect? Well, I actually I did think that as well. I had encountered some of these people that just despised the Kennedys. Obviously, they were Republicans and said some very nasty things about them. I had a sister who was a right wing Republican, and she had no use for the Kennedys.
It took a long time and still, even more recently when Ted Kennedy was still alive, if you sometimes read the letters to editors in the newspapers, people will bring up his part in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in an effort to single out the Kennedy family with very disparaging comments. So, yes, there is still some kind of lingering hangover with some people. It’s like Obama now. I haven’t found anyone yet who admits to being a racist. But you know as well as I do that there are people who have gone absolutely crazy that there is a black man in the White House. Can’t handle it, can/t deal with it at all. They won’t admit to it (being racist) because they see it as being normal.
With Kennedy coming on the scene with so much energy and determination to take a stand for racial civil rights, did that give you a glimmer of hope that it would also set in motion a stand for gay rights as well? No, I don’t think I did actually. You just accepted being gay as a fact that would never be talked about. The thing though that struck a chord with me was his interest in mental health. He proposed a lot of mental health legislation. Today, we have a lot of mental health centers that did not exist before Kennedy. These centers can be directly attributed to Kennedy and his administration.
You mentioned Ted Kennedy. The employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that was recently passed was originally championed in 1996 by Sen. Ted Kennedy, but failed passing in the Senate by one vote. Would you say that perhaps President Kennedy had perhaps some posthumous influence on his brother in the passage of this bill? Well it’s entirely possible. There is no question that Jack had quite an influence on his brother, Ted, as well as Bobby, in every respect. Being like-minded, the Kennedys were devoted to public service and many of their contributions were of a liberal leaning. So whether it was Jack’s influence or the influence of the entire social environment is anyone’s guess.
Kennedy had a mentally handicapped sister, Rosemary. Do you think that personally raised Kennedy’s awareness of the need of mental health reform? Oh, yes, but I think she always had for the most part private treatment. But there were a lot of mentally ill and mentally challenged people who wound up in state hospitals that had become warehouses for these people. I think that she and her condition had a lot to do with the Kennedy family’s interest in the mental health field.
Now with the incidents of young people committing suicide having been bullied, is counseling a needed component to fixing this? Or should it go back to parenting and re-visit the root cause of this problem that is just now getting its deserved attention? A lot of young, gay people contemplate suicide whether they are bullied or not. Bullying was common in general, public attitudes toward being gay. It’s amazing what has happened in recent years as far as public attitudes changing toward gay marriage. I think many young people went through major depressions because there was no alternative — you are this way, and you are going to stay this way.
I think it was about 1972 that the American Psychiatric Association took homosexuality off the list of mental illnesses in its diagnostic and statistical manual. In the past, parents who had just found out that they had a son or a daughter who was gay would ask me if I could recommend a good psychiatrist. I would advise the parents that probably what a psychiatrist will do is try to help that child learn to accept himself as who he is rather than try to change him. To help rid him of self- hatred, to help rid him of feelings of unworthiness and thus build up his self-esteem so that he likes who he is regardless of what he is. This is the crux of good mental health, which is self-acceptance.
How much to you feel that the spirit of Martin Luther King with the march on Washington in 1963 influenced any movement toward gay rights, if any? Well, what comes to mind is that he was a member of the clergy. Years ago, when I taught at UTA, I had a student who wrote about AIDS and people with AIDS. She did her research at Methodist Hospital in Dallas. What she concluded in her thesis was that the demographic with the most negative attitude toward gays was the clergy. So, I’m not so sure that even though he was a crusader for human/civil rights that he would have been in favor of gay rights. To my knowledge, he never addressed publicly anything to do with gay rights.
With so much of what we are talking about right now, you have to transport yourself back to the era of which we are speaking. You have to call it for what it was then even though things are very obviously different now. It’s a whole different vocabulary now. Well, it’s like people who always like to discuss what the Bible says about things. I maintain that the Bible doesn’t make any sense at all unless you put it into the context of when it was written. Within its historical perspective, what maybe was true then may be so accurate today.
On a lighter note, Jackie Kennedy created a red carpet outside of Hollywood. She gave launch to the careers of designer’s who are now household names such as Dior, Givenchey, Halston. She even proclaimed that Oleg Cassini as the new Secretary of Style. What did this do not only for American women’s sense of style but for their sense of expression? Oh yes, women all wanted to dress like her. I remember that she often wore a “sheath” dress, and suddenly you saw many women wearing the same thing, the pill box hat and gloves, and women wanted to have their hair done like her. I’ve only seen that same influence again with Princess Diana. Prior to Jackie Kennedy, I don’t ever recall any of the first ladies having any of the influence that she did — Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower? I don’t think so. Jackie would bring in to the White House famous classical musicians like Pablo Casals. People everywhere began to take note of the artists of our culture and attempted to emulate it in social circles all over.
We can see that artistic effort is still an influence to us all today in the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
What did you and your generation lose on November 22. Actually, I think it renewed history for us. We can read about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and think about it what it was like. But, you haven’t really lived through anything quite like a president being assassinated until it happens in your own time. I think it will always have a profound effect on me.
Did it say anything to you in particular about the world now? It’s not paradise anymore and not an ideal place as we had hoped for. I think many people lost their idealism. The reality of life is that there is evil in the world. I think young people then really liked Kennedy because he was in many ways an idealist. This appealed to young people because that’s what young people are —energetic and idealistic. His death took away some of that perhaps. It was a shock. It did in its day what 9/11 did to us more recently. It reminded us then and now that it’s not always going to be a perfect world.
Now that we have seen the election of our first African-American president, can the election of a female president or openly gay president be far behind? Well, I hope it’s not too far behind. In fact, I am hoping that a female president will be elected next time. I think she should have been elected the last time. Either female or gay candidates would be difficult to elect because of stereotypical thinking.
Oh, when I was growing up, the stereotype was that all gay men were limp-wristed, effeminate and that kind of stuff. I think the stereotype of a female politician is that she is scatter-brained and she can’t be serious about anything. It depends on what area of the country that you live in. If you live in the Bible belt, most people still would just as soon vote for a baboon as a gay person it seems. But it is changing.
In your 85 years, did you ever think that you we would see some of the things you have as far as the advancement of gay rights? No, never, never! What is going on today, I didn’t dare dream of 50 years ago. It’s just amazing what has happened in 50 years. Absolutely amazing. It boggles my mind. To think that we have a black man in the White House today? Why, when I was growing up in the 1930s and 40s, that would have been absolutely unheard of. And gay marriage? When we couldn’t even say the word gay publicly? And now we have what, about 16 states recognizing gay marriage? It is just astounding and I’m glad I’ve lived this long to see it.