Texas Democrats stood in stunned silence Friday afternoon, their happy plans for a gala welcome party for President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy turned into a horrible mockery by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas.
The party was to have been at the Municipal Auditorium, a Texas welcome for the Kennedys and the Johnsons.
OFFICIAL CALLS OFF
At 2:20 p.m. an official announcement of cancellation came.
“Let’s go ahead and have it and make it a prayer meeting for Dallas,” one party worker muttered in shock, reflecting the feeling of sorry and consternation that state Democratic Party leaders voiced.
Austin police were already out removing the no-parking signs which had been set up as barriers — part of the precautions for the Commodore Perry Hotel.
A sprawling pressroom, set up in the hotel basement to be a news command post for the presidential visit, was only partly filled with a scattering of early arriving reporters and a delegation of the Texas Democratic executive staff.
There were tears and prayers as Austin waited during the tense minutes before news of the death of President Kennedy.
While the news was centered on President Kennedy, Austin was filled with particular concern for Gov. John Connally. State democratic executive committee officials gathered in the pressroom were frantically seeking news on Connally, a personal friend of most of them.
Frank Erwin, secretary of the committee and member of the University Board of Regents, announced the cancellation of the dinner and all Austin activities and flew immediately to the bedside of his close personal friend Governor Connally.
Meanwhile, in the lobby of the hotel, a prominent Dallas Democratic party official remarked, “All I can say is that I’m ashamed to say that I’m from Dallas.”
While the nation and the world were deep in shock and dismay, Texans had a special reason to feel shame and sorrow. An unidentified Austin businessman echoed feelings and sentiments of Texans all over:
“Why here? Why did a tragedy like this happen in our state?”
And paradoxically, the state that was the scene of the Presidential murder is the birthplace and the home of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States.
In a solemn ceremony lasting only 25 minutes, the Legislature of the State of Texas met in joint session Friday night to pray.
MOST CHAOTIC DAY
It was as if the state seal had been affixed to end the blackest, most chaotic day in the nation’s recent history.
The galleries of the House of Representatives chamber in the capitol building could have seated very few more people. Many students and teenagers were included in the audience. Most of the House desks were occupied — a representative, his wife and his two small children were gathered around one.
Senators and other special guests sat in folding chars which had been arranged on the House floor and to the right of the speaker’s stand.
CAME FOR A BANQUET
Many of those attending had planned to come to Austin Friday for a far different purpose — the scheduled flamboyant banquet honoring the President and Mrs. Kennedy in Municipal Auditorium.
Bryon Tunnell, speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, called the special session to order “to salute the memory of the martyred president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, dead of an assassin’s bullet, and to pray for the recovery of our governor, John Connally.”
Of the late President Kennedy and new President Johnson, Tunnel said, “We morn the sudden and violent death of the one, and we ask the Lord’s blessings on the other.”
Lieutenant Governor Preston Smith of Lubbock then introduced the chaplain of the Senate, the Rev. W. H. Townsend of Austin.
Except for the cameras flashing and whirring from the galleries, the atmosphere was church-like. The gray-haired Rev. Townsend prayed into the microphone without notes, clasping a Bible in both hands, eyes closed.
“We stand amazed,” he declared. “Like pilgrims wandering in the wilderness without a guide, we will come before Your presence this moment … Bless our own native Texan as the mantle of leadership falls on his shoulders. Give him courage and strength commensurate with every task.”
By the time one television cameraman had his equipment set up, the service was over. In spontaneous, solemn session, the people had assured themselves that it was true, and that the nation must go on.