Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Achievements and Failures of Texas Progressives

In 2010, the University of Texas Press published "The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became A Power in State and National Politics," a book I co-wrote with Dr. Patrick L. Cox. In this passage, we review the record of the Progressive Movement in early 20th century Texas.

Sam Rayburn and other Texas House speakers from the early 20th century derived power from being associated with the Progressive movement, which enjoyed broad support within the Legislature. No political movement in Texas history had more enduring impact. Under the influence of the Progressives, a Texas Legislature phobic of centralism greatly expanded the reach and depth of the state government. Rayburn, for instance, lent his considerable influence to support a law that made school textbooks more widely available for Texas children, another establishing a state board of health, and one that created a department of agriculture.

Progressives also revamped the state’s primitive education system, still dominated by rural one-teacher, one-classroom schools. The state government had virtually abandoned Texas schoolchildren after Reconstruction. State expenditures on education ranked near the bottom nationally and, in terms of quality, one survey in 1920 rated Texas 39th of the 48 states. Progressives committed to spending more per pupil and new state laws reduced administrative costs and improved efficiency.

One reform package allowed one-room schoolhouses to consolidate into larger districts even as the state increased the budget to improve rural roads and more districts provided free transportation for students. Under a 1918 reform, the state of Texas provided free textbooks to children for the first time. In 1915, Texas passed its first compulsory attendance law since Reconstruction, requiring all children between the ages of eight and 14 to attend school for at least a 60-day school term. (Texas was one of the last five states in the nation to require school attendance.) During the next two years, the Legislature lengthened the school year to 100 days, with certain exemptions allowed in agricultural areas. By 1929, Texas schools averaged 156 schooldays an academic year, the high mark in the South and only six days short of the national average.

Progressives also improved teacher training. As of 1920, nearly half of Texas teachers lacked even a high school diploma. Only five percent held a college or university degree. To improve teacher standards, the state Legislature established normal (or teacher training) schools across the state, including North Texas Normal in Denton in 1899, Southwest Texas Normal in San Marcos the same year and Stephen F. Austin Normal in Nacogdoches in 1917.

Progressivism briefly stalled during the scandal-plagued administration of Gov. Jim Ferguson from 1915-1917, but resumed after Ferguson’s impeachment. The Progressive Movement experienced such extraordinary success for such a long time in Texas because the agenda of moral regeneration that animated the movement tapped deeply into Texas religious culture, which by the first decades of the twentieth century came to be dominated by Baptists and Methodists. By the 1920s, Southern Baptists constituted the single largest Protestant denomination (19.9 percent of the Texas population) and Methodists the second largest (17.8 percent.) The large number of adherents insured that these two churches and their social views would be well-represented in the state House. As part of this culture, speakers in this era brought a fervent support for Prohibition and moral renewal to policy debates.

The era of reform in Texas politics from the 1890s to the 1920s saw the rise of eight speakers from the Baptist or Methodist denominations. Conservative Baptists and Methodists tended to view their political activism as an extension of their religious beliefs. Progressive political, social and religious movements coalesced on Prohibition and a number of social reform issues. Support for Prohibition created a strong coalition for many speaker candidates.

Prohibition supporters also shared in the growing Anglo sentiment of xenophobia and racism and “saw racial minorities as impediments to honest government,” as historian Lewis Gould put it. Exemplified by men like Neff, the reform movement “drew its strength from the unquestioned moralities of the white Protestant American . . .” As the Baptist Standard put it, the fight for Prohibition was “an issue of Anglo Saxon culture” and its survival amid a black, brown, and Southern and Eastern European onslaught.

Prohibitionists successfully sold the banning of alcohol as a necessary precursor to triumph in World War I. “To not drink became patriotic,” as Texas historians Robert Calvert and Arnoldo De León noted. “[P]eople did not work well with hangovers, alcohol was needed in the war effort, and saloons corrupted U.S. servicemen.” In 1918, the Legislature passed a state Prohibition amendment, and the Eighteenth Amendment, prohibiting the sale, manufacture and distribution of alcohol, became part of the United States Constitution the following year. This, plus the passage of a federal women’s suffrage amendment as the war effort wound down, marked the Progressives’ last major achievements.

As Calvert and De León point out, the same impulses that propelled Prohibition to passage also inspired demands for cultural conformity at the start of World War I. “In an effort to unite a heterogeneous population into a public consensus for a war effort, propaganda committees extolled patriotic goals and middle-class American values,” they write.

Texas made public criticism of the American flag, the war effort, the U.S. government or soldiers’ uniforms a crime publishable by imprisonment. The Legislature required that public schools teach patriotism and, except during foreign-language courses, conduct all classes in English. One Legislative committee called for removal of all books and periodicals in the state library that depicted Germany or German culture favorably, while in 1919 Governor William Hobby vetoed appropriations for the University of Texas German Department.

This political atmosphere conferred a provincial, defensive air to Texas culture for the next three decades. In spite of its label, Texas Progressivism often represented a cultural rear-guard action aimed more at preserving a supposedly golden past than at opening doors to a strikingly different future. Such efforts set the stage in the 1920s for the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, a hooded order that would soon dominate state politics.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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