Born the son of a tenant farmer in 1927 in the small East Texas town of Gober, future Texas House Speaker James A. "Jimmy" Turman became principal and teacher at the Wolfe City Elementary-Junior High School at the age of 19, and a junior high principal in Paris at 24. Turman did this while earning a master's degree at East Texas State Teacher's College. Turman's career as an educator was interrupted with a stint in the Navy during the Korean War.
Returning home, he won election as a state representative in 1954. While a state representative, he enrolled in the education department graduate school at the University of Texas, earning his doctorate in educational administration and psychology in 1957. In 1961, he would become the first Texas House speaker in history with a doctoral degree.
Turman said in 2004 that it was impossible as a child to avoid the issue of race in his Hunt County home in East Texas. “In Hunt County when I was a kid . . . in Greenville . . . there [were] a lot of black people living there,” Turman said. “ . . . And they had a big sign that went from a corner of the courthouse lot to an opposite corner of the street -- a big sign that you drive under when you’re going around the courthouse. There’s neon, and it said, ‘THE BLACKEST LAND AND THE WHITEST PEOPLE.’”
Turman voted for segregation bills, but even then his public statements revealed a reticence on the issue. Asked by the Dallas Morning News about his record on segregation, Turman expressed no enthusiasm for Jim Crow. “In a conscientious attempt to reflect the thinking of the people in my district, I voted for the bills designed to continue separate but equal facilities in our public schools.” Turman implied that he would change his position if there were a change of consensus in his community.
Turman shared his moderate politics with his predecessor Waggoner Carr. The two carefully negotiated the delicate middle ground between the Democratic Party’s warring conservative and liberal factions. Turman, like Carr, considered himself a fiscal conservative, but Turman also said that his Baptist religious background, his experience growing up with dirt-poor farmers and his shocking experiencing touring Texas mental health facilities inspired his support for social spending.
“I had been called a liberal,” Turman said. “But I thought . . . I considered myself a conservative, but I was concerned about social issues, programs, people. I had a lot of old-age pensioners at that time in my district, and poor people, and I was concerned about the needs of those people . . . that could be provided by government. So I called myself a conservative with a heart.”
Liberals actively sought moderate allies to wrest control of the Democratic Party from the reigning Shivercrats, supporters of Democratic Governor Allan Shivers who backed the Republican Party nationally and who increasingly supported the most reactionary policies within the state of Texas, particularly on racial matters.
“Jimmy Turman is what we in Texas call an East Texas Liberal . . . Coming from a town of 150 with four churches, last year he sponsored the bill to outlaw nudists, who certainly would not be welcome at Sunday school in Gober,” one of the state’s leading liberals, Texas Observer editor Ronnie Dugger, wrote. “On taxes, he is a liberal person, and on state spending he is a humanitarian.”
By this era of Texas politics, “liberalism” was associated with support for civil rights, a highly unpopular stand among East Texas Anglos, so Turman, Carr and their allies struggled with an identity that avoided use of the “l word.” As Turman described his viewpoints in a newspaper interview, “I believe in less federal control in everything –- farming, education, and so forth. In other words, I am a conservative states’ righter. I’m a liberal in the areas of humanitarian needs, like education and welfare. But everything else, on a matter of any other item in state government, I’m just as conservative as the next man about spending a dollar . . .”
Turman quickly aligned himself with Carr as a House member and persuaded the West Texan to run for a second term as speaker in 1959. Turman also received crucial support from Gov. Price Daniel. After his one term as House speaker in 1943, he beat Pat Neff, Jr. in the Democratic primary for attorney general in 1946 and served the first of three terms in that office.
While attorney general, Daniel gained prominence for his efforts on behalf of the state in the Tidelands dispute, where he argued in the federal courts that Texas, not the United State government, had control over the oil in submerged land off the state’s coastline. Daniel’s position won him huge support from the oil and gas industry in his 1952 Senate campaign. In the Senate, Daniel cosponsored a joint resolution that restored tidelands to Texas, a measure signed by President Eisenhower.
Daniel made the decision to enter the governor’s race once he knew that Shivers would not run for another term. He declared that he would “rather be governor of Texas than President of the United States.” Daniel won election in the closely contested and disputed 1956 Democratic Primary against Ralph Yarborough. Although basically a conservative and a voice for oil companies, Daniel rejected the shrill racist positions that Shivers used in his later career. Publicly committed to segregation, Daniel turned out to be fairly progressive as governor as he supported passage of laws that regulated lobbyists, created a water planning board and increased teachers’ salaries.
Riding a wave of popularity, Daniel won a second term in 1958 and worked closely with Legislative moderates like Carr and Turman. As noted earlier, Carr prevailed in the 1959 speaker’s race by a slim 8-vote margin, a sign of how evenly divided the Texas House was entering the 1960s. Turman served as one of Carr’s lieutenants and, in return, when Turman expressed interest in the speakership for the 1961 session, Carr gave a helping hand.
By this point lobbyists played the critical role in speakers’ races. Carr gave Turman a list of important contacts. “And he wrote down eight names on a piece of paper, and told me to ‘go see these people, and explain to them why that you want to run, and get okayed with them,’” Turman said. “ . . . You really need the blessing of these people.’” Turman met with the chief oil and gas, railroad, insurance, banking, and liquor lobbyists, along with the head of the Texas Medical Association. Carr and other advisers coached Turman in approaching each of these lobbyists and sometimes served as intermediaries.
Turman represented a dry county and was concerned about the stance of the liquor lobby towards his candidacy. Turman’s team dispatched Rep. Bill Pieratt of Giddings (“the wettest district in the state” as Turman put it) to meet with Homer Leonard who served as House speaker from 1941-1943 and who was then the chief liquor lobbyist. According to Turman, “Bill . . . [says to] Homer Leonard, “Jimmy’s not going to hurt you.”
With the rapid growth in the state’s economy since World War II, the lobby grew in power. Rayford Price, then a state representative from Palestine in East Texas, said that lobbyists always played a huge role in the legislative process. In the 1950s and 1960s, he said, lobbyists served as exclusive hired guns for large special interests, such as the Texas Manufacturers Association.
In debating complex legislation sought by interest groups, Price explained, House members found themselves at a disadvantage. Price said he had only one secretary and a part-time staffer to assist him with research and all his other duties. Lobbyists, therefore, freely offered research to back their proposals, but the information was obviously spun to advance their interests. Price and other former speakers said that opposing groups also presented research and that the credibility of lobbyists depended on their accuracy of their presentations.
“[U]sually there would be more than one side to an issue and you’d be getting facts from several sources,” Price said. “And I’d go to the library and see if what they told me was true.” Some legislators, however, worked less diligently on pending legislation and did the lobby’s bidding.
Wining and dining by lobbyists was very much part of the legislative process then, Price recalled, and for most House members information and a good meal was all that was exchanged. For less ethical House members, Price said, lobbyists provided “girls and sex and liquor and I guess money in some cases. But I think that was very rare then and maybe more rare now.”
Turman said that in spite of lobbyists pressuring speaker candidates, he was able to maintain his independence. Still, Turman made a political enemy during his speaker’s race who later haunt him. He said that Bill Heatly of Paducah, the powerful Appropriations Committee Chair, pressured Turman to promise him the chairmanship of the Revenue and Tax Committee in return for Heatly’s support in the speaker’s race. Turman said he refused.
Man, he could’ve been so much help! But, I couldn’t promise . . . He had already told me how much stock he owned and how big he was and he knows everybody in West Texas and he’s in bed with all the rich people and they can all help me and man, I didn’t have any money. . . . Anyway, he left and he got angry, and he turned against me that night, and worked his head off to defeat me for speaker."
"And he started . . . getting lobbies to call on [my supporters.] Bob Bass of Texarkana, freshman member, . . . did a little ranching . . . out of the Texarkana area, down in DeKalb [County] . . . He wanted to borrow $500 to help put some hay up or do something or another. I guess it was an FHA, farmers home loan thing . . . Anyway, he could not get his loan renewed. 'It’s because you’re supporting Turman for speaker,' [bankers said]. . .” And they would not give him a loan, and he called and asked me, 'What am I going to do about this?' . . .
I said, 'Well now I haven’t got any money to help you.' But he said, 'Well, I’m told that I cannot vote for Turman, or I won’t get my loan.' But he had the audacity to buck the system."
The next two years Heatly opposed Turman and Gov. Daniel’s tax proposals and later joined five other legislators in accusing Turman of financial improprieties when the speaker entered the 1962 lieutenant governor’s race. In spite of Heatly, Turman grabbed the speakership by a narrow margin, winning 83 to 66 over conservative Wade Spillman of McAllen. By coincidence, Turman’s swearing in took place on the 50th anniversary of swearing in of Sam Rayburn, the last Fannin County man to serve as Texas House speaker.
Rayford Price voted for Turman but said that the speaker made a major tactical error with his committee appointments. “Jim made the mistake of putting his opposition on committees that never heard a bill. They had nothing to do, except to cause trouble for him,” Price said.
The University of Texas student newspaper the Daily Texan noted the “immense power” held by U.S. Speaker Sam Rayburn and declared that Turman “will have comparable power on the state level.” The article detailed the speaker’s power to appoint committee members and chairs as well as members of the Legislative Council, to control the flow of legislative debate, to appoint minor employees and to interpret House rules.
By 1961, speakers were expected to be major players on a level with the governor and the lieutenant governor. Since Senterfitt, they were also expected to have their own agenda. Turman gave wide-ranging press interviews expressing views on taxes and spending priorities.
Turman faced a busy session and sought to avoid debates on segregation. Like many other East Texan politicians leaning towards racial liberalism, Turman preferred working behind the scenes, allowing desegregation to take place as quietly as possible. Nevertheless Byron Tunnell of Tyler, who would serve as speaker from 1963 to 1965, introduced three new segregation bills. Turman, aware that the federal courts were dismantling such laws and that many members lacked any enthusiasm for Jim Crow saw the bills as a needless sideshow. As he remembered:
"There was just no need to get the House roused up over another issue, because I had enough issues of my own. I had this House divided between liberals and conservatives. I had it divided between city boys and rural boys . . . I had it divided between the big . . . electric utility companies and the 66 or whatever they were electric cooperatives. They were fighting each other bitterly. I had it between the railroads and the truckers . . . I had the wets and the drys."
With such a fractured House, Turman was afraid to bring up segregation. Instead, Turman buried Tunnell’s proposals.
"I . . . referred these three bills to the State Affairs Committee, which is commonly called the “Speaker’s Committee” . . . and then I had my chairman refer it to a subcommittee. We jokingly say it’s the “deep-freeze committee” because it’s not going to ever come out."
"And Byron Tunnell was upset with me about that. . . . I told him I just couldn’t see the Legislature involved in this kind of thing anymore because . . . [integration] was the law of the land . . . [W]e had enough problems in my session . . . to not get involved and bogged down in something like that, and I was not going to give a run on those bills."
And so he said, 'Okay. All right.'The next day he gets up and says, 'Mr. Speaker, will the gentleman yield?' 'The speaker yields to the gentleman.' 'Mr. Speaker, I request to speak on personal privilege'” Okay, so he does, so I leave the chair, I go to the speaker’s office. And Byron gets up, and gives me hell because I will not side with him on those bills."
Turman and Tunnell may not have known it, but the reliably Southern and pro-segregationist Texas they had known was disappearing before their eyes, and Tunnell’s efforts represented a near last-stand for de jure segregation in Texas. By 1960, the number of residents born outside of Texas represented 11.7 percent of the total population. By 1994, however, that percentage grew to 35 percent.
Unlike the past, when most Texas newcomers came from Southern states, the largest proportion of immigrants in the late twentieth century arrived from the Midwest. This immigration deeply transformed Texas society. "In 1861 everyone considered Texas a part of the South; a century later its regional identification was debatable . . .," historian John Boles noted.
In the coming years, Texans legalized liquor-by-the-drink and repealed blue laws, which banned Sunday sales of certain retail items. These changes marked the crumbling of traditional Southern Protestant culture in Texas. Racism persisted but its legal expression became less visible and thus more vexing to change. These social changes accompanied further economic transformation, which left the Legislature struggling to catch up.
Texas still lagged behind much of the nation in school performance and education spending and everyone expected Turman, as an educator, to emphasize education as speaker. Unsurprisingly, during his term the House passed a bill that established senior and graduate studies at what became the University of Houston. Turman also made pay raises for schoolteachers and state employees his top priority and argued that tax increases should fund this effort.
“Since almost 92 percent of state expenditures are used to finance schools, highways, and welfare functions, it will be extremely difficult to make any substantial reductions in the state’s budget without seriously impairing one or the other of these governmental services,” Turman admitted.
This left Turman with limited options. Turman deemed corporate and personal income taxes not politically feasible. His ally, Gov. Price Daniel, opposed raising the sales tax. Turman proposed a penny tax on each bottle of beer and soda. In addition, he supported Gov. Daniel’s plan for a gas severance tax and a corporate franchise tax.
But a growing number of Legislators supported a bill creating the state’s first-ever general sales tax law. Turman killed the sales tax in the regular session by casting a “no” vote, creating a tie in the House. Both Turman and Gov. Daniel saw a sales tax, backed by extremely conservative business groups like the oil and gas industry and the Texas Manufacturing Association, as regressive. A special session passed the tax however and Daniel let the bill become law without his signature, a devastating defeat for both the governor and Turman.
Rayford Price saw the sales tax as a practical necessity. “Oil had carried the state for many years but the economy was changing and we needed to draw from a new tax base,” Price said. “The sales tax, I think, was the correct place to go at that time.”
The tax battle wounded Turman in 1962 when he ran for lieutenant governor. Turman’s campaign for lieutenant governor against Preston Smith, who would serve as governor from 1969-1973, turned nasty quickly. Six conservative opponents in the House, including Bill Heatly, wrote an open letter in which they charged the speaker had paid a babysitter with state funds. The Houston Post and other newspapers across the state picked up the story.
In 2004, Turman said that the House staffer, listed as a clerk, had worked under Jim Lindsey and Waggoner Carr and was a nurse whose services were available to everyone at the Capitol. She worked as a babysitter voluntarily and without pay, he said. “So everything’s just the same —- except I get tagged later for using taxpayer money for a babysitter,” Turman said. His reputation smeared, Turman lost to the much more conservative Smith.
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.