Blue Texas

December 18, 2016 § 2 Comments

A friend of mine, Max Krochmal, a Professor at TCU, has written an important book, “Blue Texas The Making of a Multiracial Democratic Coalition in the Civil Right Era”

It is a meticulously documented account of Texas political history between 1938 and 1963.  Reading this book was an emotional experience for me.  It describes a series of events that were crucial and pivotal in my life.  Because I was active in Texas politics during that period of time, expressing my reaction to Max’s book in this essay has proved to be a very difficult task.  I have trashed my first two efforts to write about this book.   I submit this one with this warning:  No man can be truly objective as he describes his own behavior and motivations or the circumstances which influenced him.

The book is a description of efforts by four groups of men and women in Texas to find a way to work together in politics.  The four groups were:  White liberals, blacks, mexicanos and labor unions.  

The book is written from a particular point of view, strongly held by Max Krochmal.  He believes development of a successful political coalition in Texas required a fundamental rebalancing of power among those four groups.  He identifies the white liberals as political sinners in dire need of salvation.  Over and over he makes the point:  White liberals neither understood nor appreciated the rights of the blacks and mexicanos to manage and direct their own political efforts.

As he sees it, liberal political success in Texas cannot occur until and unless the coalition of which he writes overcomes the differences which separate the aims and ambitions of its four groups.  He is optimistic that comfortable and workable agreements can be accomplished , but only if actual power sharing arrangements are implemented.  And, because, as he believes, white liberals have had an unfair amount of power, they are  the ones who must accept a less powerful role in future coalition efforts.

A Troubled Marriage

As I read Max’s book, I thought of some of my professional experiences with divorces.  I despised   divorce practice and, after a few years as a young lawyer at the beginning of my career, I was able to end my acceptance of those cases. I learned that many marriages continued for decades ,despite a complete lack of love or respect,  because the parties were obligated to raise children and were dependent on each other for financial support.

The tension, suspicion and distrust described by Max between the four components of his proposed coalition model were similar to a troubled marriage.  And the one thing many of the other three groups could most often agree on was:  White political leadership could no longer be tolerated.  This judgment was most apparent in Bexar County’s San Antonio, the political capital of Mexicano politics.  There the grito of Mexicano  Democrats was “Mexicanos must be led only by Mexicanos.”   

The Tension Between “Electoral Politics” and Coalition Building

Max’s research exposed an underlying truth that added to the problems of creating a viable liberal coalition:  Often the interests of the Mexicanos, based on local alliances in Bexar County, conflicted with an effort to elect a liberal governor of Texas.  In fact, I am convinced that, except for that circumstance, Ralph Yarborough would have been elected Governor of Texas in 1956 and Don Yarborough would have been elected Governor of Texas in 1962.  Those two defeats ,by margins of about 3,500 votes and 25,000 votes respectively, had momentous and disastrous results, not only in Texas but in the United States.

Following his defeat in 1956, Ralph Yarborough was elected  to the U..S. Senate, where he was dependent on Lyndon Johnson, the Majority Leader in the Senate, for support of his liberal agenda that included passage of the Cold War GI Bill and, later, support for all of the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960’s.  The price for those accomplishments was ending his organizational help for Texas liberals.

If Don Yarborough had been elected Governor of Texas in 1962,  he, instead of John Connally, would have been working with Bobby Kennedy to build a permanent liberal political organization in Texas.  Instead, John Connally, who hated Bobby Kennedy, was Governor and sabotaged all efforts to build a liberal political organization in Texas.  Don Yarborough, not John Connally, would have been riding in the car with JFK on November 23, 1963.  If he had survived with a wound, he would have enjoyed the political invincibility  John Connally enjoyed.

B.T. Bonner:  A Friendship’s Painful End

Max’s book is a fascinating account of the efforts of a large number of very interesting  characters who worked in Texas politics for a variety of motives and in a variety of ways.  Some, like B.T. Bonner, never saw an organization he liked unless he created it.  He was fearless, relentless and ruthless.  His effort to increase the power of black activists was unwavering.   I was his friend but that sometimes led to bitter disagreements.  Our friendship ended when he chose the Harris County Democrats of which i was the chairman for a surprise raid by a group of TSU students who not only took it over but also denounced its leadership.  It is the only time I recall when my law partner, Chris Dixie, and I were accused of being racists.

Huntsville:  Organizational Success But Different Opinions About Plowing

For more than fifteen years before that painful conclusion B.T. and I were friends, although our friendship was often tested by disagreements over tactics and choices.  Max describes  a part of the story of an organizing effort in Huntsville Texas that illustrates our divergent opinions.   Hank Brown, using labor union money, sponsored a school in Austin where young people from different parts of Texas were taught the techniques of organizing local groups to demand economic and racial justice.  The delegation from Huntsville returned home and began a series of demonstrations and marches protesting the law enforcement and economic policies promoted by Walker County Judge Amos Gates.  After their efforts had been under way for a few weeks, B.T. arrived and assumed a leadership role.

Soon thereafter, ten black teenagers were arrested and sentenced to jail in one of Texas’ notoriously brutal juvenile facilities.  Judge Gates, with no training as a lawyer, did this without notice to the parents of the children.  When this became known a NAACP lawyer, a black Houston lawyer, Chris Dixie and I launched an effort to effect the release the children from this juvenile prison.  In concert with these other lawyers, I drafted an application for habeas corpus and filed it with the panel of the Texas Court of Appeals in Houston.  Then I spent a memorable afternoon in the Court’s library, assisted by Spud Bell, one of the Justices on that court, helping me draft a Writ of  Habeas Corpus.  I knew about the ancient writ but had never drafted one.

In response to our application, the Court scheduled a prompt hearing and  ordered the children brought to the Court for a hearing to determine whether  they were being deprived  of their liberty illegally.  In addition to the lawyers for the children, a lawyer from Huntsville attended to defend Judge Gates’ action.  The parents of the children and a group of local black business men and church leaders were also present.  The hearing consisted mostly of questions by the Court directed to the hapless lawyer defending Judge Gates.  His answers amounted to a confession that the procedure followed by Gates had no resemblance to due process or the law.  The Court ordered the children released upon posting hundred dollar bonds, pending a final decision which the Court promised to render without delay.

A short time later the Court rendered two written opinions declaring  Gates’ actions to have been illegal and therefore void.

B.T. called to complain bitterly that my “interference” with his organizing had deprived him of a useful issue.  I told him neither the children nor their parents had agreed to become useful martyrs and that I had no apology for helping to secure their release. My law partner, Chris Dixie, had a favorite expression:  When referring to a proposed action, he would often remark that it depended on “how deep you want to plow.”  For me, leaving those children in a juvenile jail was deeper than I was willing to plow.

Max describes the Huntsville organizing effort and B.T.’s involvement in it but he does not mention the legal proceeding that accompanied it.  His focus was on the political organizational event.

My Lost Chance to Become a Hero

This Huntsville episode was typical of several of my arguments with B.T.  during the years we were friends.  On one occasion we did agree.  At B.T.’s invitation, I and another lawyer, George Dixie, Chris’s nephew, went to Wallis Texas, B.T.’s home town, to participate in the integration of a local restaurant.  George and I slept on the ground in a nearby cotton field.  The next morning I and an elderly black man, Brazos Jim Jackson, led a procession of other local black men on a short walk to the restaurant, where we entered and were served without incident.

I had mentally prepared myself for the probability that, for the first time in my life,in this little rural town, far from public attention, I would be physically assaulted by one or more adults.  I hoped I would comport myself without cowardice or embarrassment.  I was determined to do so but, without previous experience, I was not  sure.

Nothing like that happened because, unknown to me or to George, Chris Dixie had called a friend of ours, U..S. District Judge Woodrow Seals, who called the Texas Highway Department and demanded protection for the demonstration.  So, when we showed up for our march, there was a line of about six or seven black and white Texas Highway Patrol cars lined across the highway from the small row of businesses in this little village.  With that contingent of armed law enforcement officers looking on, the group of young white men who showed up to make trouble were not willing to risk the consequences, so my mental preparation was unnecessary.

More About B.T.

Max describes another organizational experience featuring  B.T. in Austin, where some college students had organized a kind of reverse sit-in to effect the integration of a movie theater.  B.T., impatient with the pace of that effort, ended it with a personal confrontation with the owner of the theater and effected its integration.

I won’t describe here the other aspects of my friendship with B.T. except to say that, until the HCD  meeingI described earlier, my wife, Beverly,  and I enjoyed a friendly relationship with B.T. and Florence, his wife.  I never doubted B.T.’s  sincerity and I admired his eagerness to confront powerful agents of racism.  Our tactics often diverged because I was focussed on electing government officials and he was focussed on challenging organizational efforts necessary to accomplish that goal.

Hank Brown and the Mexicanos

Max’s description of Bexar County politics is fascinating.  The Byzantine plots, betrayals, constantly shifting alliances are a primer for understanding how real politics is practiced.  His description of the heroic efforts of Hank Brown, the head of the Texas Labor council is a profile of courage.  Hank was a member of the plumbers union, a part of the old AFL organization of craft unions. Generally speaking, with a few exceptions, the crafts were bitterly opposed to racial integration and jealously protected their unions from integration until legally compelled to open their apprentice programs to black applicants.

Despite this major part of his rank and file, Hank managed to be a reliable source of power and funds in support of liberal political efforts.  The CIO part of his organization supported that effort and managed to counter attacks on Hank from his craft union members.

Max does not deal with this background but he does catalogue Hank Brown’s efforts.  The fact that Hank was white did not evoke the kind of hostility that nonunion whites did.  I assume this was probably because he was a source of money and support.

Max’s Choices of Black Leadership in Texas

Max’s treatment of black leadership consisted primarily of the activity of a black couple from Houston, Moses and Erma Leroy.  He describes their involvement in NAACP organizational politics, Erma’s social meetings with other blacks and her occasional work in rural communities, when she was hired by the labor unions to meet with local black leaders to encourage their political activities.  He also mentions Christia Adair, a black woman in Houston, who was active in the Harris County Democrats, a political organization formed in 1948.  The HCD  welcomed members without regard to any qualification except willingness to engage in liberal political activity.  It was focussed on electing people to public office and, hence, was not part of Max’s narrative.  Max’s interest is in the bases on which different parts of the coalition chose the candidates they would support.

He does mention several times a “block worker” method of political organizing.  He does not mention that it was designed and implemented in Houston by HCD members, white, black and union affiliated, in 1960.  It did not succeed in carrying Harris County for JFK, but it significantly increased the vote in black precincts and the power of black precinct chairmen.

Max also features the actions of black political leadership in Bexar County.  He describes their intermittent political alliances with Mexicano politicos on San Antonio’s West Side.  Their efforts to engage in liberal politics were hampered by the influence of conservative black business men who caused internal conflicts within the black community.

The Lamberts

The only white political activists who escape disparagement in Max’s book are George and Latane Lambert.  They moved smoothly from one liberal cause to another, always in support of progress toward economic justice and the betterment of the working class, regardless of the races or ethnicities involved.

A  Personal Comment and Apology

Before he wrote this book Max Krochmal and I had a number of personal conversations about Texas politics, about Larry Goodwyn, my good friend and Max’s strong supporter at Duke.  During one of them, I don’t specifically remember which one,  I told him about a painful event in my life involving Ralph Yarborough.  During one of his political races, I think it was the 1956 race for governor, Lyman Jones and I accompanied him to Houston where he made a speech at an outdoor rally on Houston’s North Side.  He was attacking his opponent for having engaged in some nefarious business deal.  As he became more and more animated, in his peroration, he used an old East Texas saying that included a racial slur.

A reporter from the Ft. Worth Star Telegram was there.  I was personally hurt because, by that time I had virtually lived with this man, traveled with him and shared his triumphs and disappointments.  I felt like a member of his family. To hear him utter that ugly word was a painful shock.  I had never before heard him say anything like that.

I looked at Lyman Jones, a veteran newspaper reporter who was handing press relations for the campaign.  He, like me, was momentarily stunned.  After a few seconds, Lyman went straight to the Ft. Worth reporter whom he had known for many years.  He persuaded the reporter to omit the gaffe from his report.

Now, as I read Max’s book, i turned a page and there, in black and white,  was an account of the whole episode.  All I could do was curse and berate myself for being so foolish.  Now my friend’s reputation will forever be besmirched as a result of my foolishness.  My only hope is that his record for unflagging support for civil rights in the U.S. Senate will overcome my mistake.  He did not support the “Southern Manifesto”, declaration of defiance signed by almost the entire Congressional delegation of Southern Representatives and Senators.  He supported and voted for every civil rights bill that came before the Senate during his terms of office.

My thoughtless divulging of an incident in which he reacted without thinking with a saying common among the East Texas white Southerners with whom he spent his childhood and young adulthood.  In that culture the saying was as unrelated to racism as the curse “Son-of-a -Bitch” in unrelated to sexism.  While neither is acceptable in polite society, neither is considered or intended to be taken literally.  But in the present age of gotcha! politics, thoughtless comments and slang usage can end political careers.  Whether that is evidence of progress or of cynical and hypocritical political tactics can be argued.  It is, nevertheless a feature of politics as practiced in this era of moment-to-moment internet unfiltered news coverage and tweets.

As I thought about this entire episode in my life, I was reminded of Mr. Justice Hugo Black.  When he was a young man he joined the Ku Klux Klan.  He resigned after a few years but he never denied that he had joined.  When he was placed on the Supreme Court by FDR, reporters dogged FDR about the former KKK member he had nominated.  FDR ignored their questions and never admitted he had been aware of that fact.

There were two consequential events as a result of Black’s background.

When Black was a young man he witnessed events when racist thugs would go to a courthouse, rally there and, after whipping the crowd into a frenzy, break into the jail, drag out a black prisoner and lynch him.  Years later, after he was  on the Supreme Court, a case from Louisiana come to the Court..  Some civil rights supporters had staged a demonstration at a county courthouse.  There was a Louisiana law prohibiting demonstrations at court houses, intended to prevent lynching.  Pursuant to that law, local police required the demonstrators to withdraw across the street from the courthouse grounds.

One demonstrator, named Cox, refused to obey the police.  He was arrested and fined.  Some civil rights lawyers appealed the case to the Supreme Court.  In Cox v. Louisiana, a 5/4 decision, Cox won but not because of the substance of the law.  A five member of the Court held the Louisiana law unconstitutional for vagueness.  I did not define with precision how much proximity to a courthouse was required to constitute a violation of the law.  Justice Black joined the dissenters.  He would have denied the appeal because he argued that the law had a lawful purpose:  To prevent interference with judicial proceedings.

Justice Black’s law clerk was a young lawyer named Chris Dixie.

Many years later, as chronicled in Max’s book, Chris was presiding over a contentious meeting of the Democratic Coalition.   He objected to a proposal guaranteeing the right of demonstrators to congregate on courthouse lawns, as they had been doing in Huntsville.  He used his position in the chair to divert that proposal for “further study” and action at some future time.  Max refers to Chris’s behavior as having been “heavy handed” and one more example of white misbehavior.

Politics is endlessly interesting to me because of the real things that happen and the nature  and histories of the people who make them happen.

The Puppetteer 

I know this has become too long.  If, however, you have persevered, I promise this will be my final comment.

Max Krochmal describes in detail the various political choices made by Mexicano politicians in San Antonio and other places in South Texas (an area whose northern border was a line from Corpus Christi to San Antonio to El Paso).  He attributes those decisions to shifting relationships between local politicians and with their relationships with white politicians.

I believe this ignores what was really happening.  Lyndon Johnson built a political career on votes in this part of Texas.  In 1937, when he was first elected to Congress, rural South Texas was a huge plantation run by three rich bosses:   George Paar in South East Texas, M. Gierra in Starr County in South Texas and M.J Raymond in Laredo, in South West Texas. In statewide elections and national elections, poll taxes were purchased in bulk for the campesinos who worked in the fields.  On election day. pickup trucks loaded with Mexicano voters would pull up at polling places.  A marked ballot would be handed to each voter, who would enter the polling place, obtain a ballot, stuff it into his shirt, and place the marked ballot in the slot for votes.  He would rerurn to the truck, hand the blank ballot to the patron, receive a bottle of beer with a dollar wrapped around it and would be returned to the ranch or farm where he worked.

This is only one way votes were controlled.  Some times the “voters” would simply sign in at the polls and the ones conducting the election would mark the ballots and place them in the appropriate box.  If, at the end of the day, more votes were needed, additional ballots would be marked and added to the box.

This system ended, or at least was modified, when the GI’s returned from service in WWII.  They and their families were no longer willing to obey the directions of the patrons .  The old political bosses still had political influence, but their power was now shared by local political organizations in rural counties as well as in San Antonio and other South Texas cities and towns.  Some of those organizations were just as illegal as before but the ones in charge were new local jefes who used political patronage and punishment dispensed by captive judges and grand juries to control local politics to impose control over county level politics.

Lyndon Johnson, after a period of military service in the war, returned to Texas and, in 1948, was elected to the United States Senate in a close election that forever branded him as “Landslide Lyndon”.   His election featured a contest with Coke Stephenson for the votes of these new political organizations.  The outcome was the subject of a sensational investigation by the Texas legislature and a bitter judicial contest.  Lyndon ultimately won  by less than one hundred votes.

After that stressful beginning, Lyndon Johnson apparently vowed  never again to be threatened by political organizations he didn’t control.  During the period of time covered by Max’s book, Lyndon was the deus ex machina who actually orchestrated the election of governors and U.S. Senators in Texas.  Some of his most loyal lieutenants lived in San Antonio.

So when I read about “Mexicans will only be led by Mexicans”, I did not interpret it as anything other than political theater.  Unless those polliticos believed LBJ had become a Mexicano, along with his puppets, John Connally and Price Daniel, the slogan was for consumption only by the uninformed.

The two most traumatic political events in my life (until the election of Donald Trump)j were the defeats of Ralph and Don Yarborough in their races for election to the Texas governorship.  And I do not believe those defeats had anything to do with the moral deficiencies or political loyalties of white liberals.  It had to do with LBJ’s determination that, if any political organization was created, it would be one loyal to and controlled by him.

§ 2 Responses to Blue Texas

  • Milton D. Lower says:

    Thank you, Bob, for this invaluable slice of Texas political history. Though you are far too modest to make any such claim, the sheer recalled importance of the events you describe validates your reputation as one of the great heroes of Texas liberalism in this era.


  • Karen "KT" Thomas says:

    Fascinating reading! Such a wealth of history gracefully written with such eloquent lucidity! Many of the persons referenced, e.g., Lyman Jones, Judge Seals, et al., I was familiar with through my mother, Betty Mansfield (aka Betty Cardwell), a reporter covering the Lower Rio Grande Valley for Corpus Christi Caller-Times and through her husband, Leigh Cardwell, tv news journalist/on-air news commentator during the 1960’s & early 1970’s. I have recently returned to Texas from living in Maryland since 1969 and your communique brought forth a flood of emotionally potent memories of that time frame. In 1968 I worked for Lyman Jones and wife Mary at the Weslaco Mid-Valley News — he was such a mesmerizing vibrant, compelling-to-listen to, captivating person who’s whole profile & package was/is unforgettable! Thank you!


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