Saturday, April 09, 2011

Oil, Water and Race: Texas Politics in the Late 1950s

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 describe Texas' overdependence on oil, the complicated problem of providing water to west Texas, and the scandals that plagued Gov. Allan Shivers in the last years of his administration.

House Speaker Jim Lindsey still wielded considerable power when he became speaker with a staff of only two secretaries and a volunteer parliamentarian. During his 1955-1957 term, Lindsey presided over the first overhaul of the Texas business corporation laws since the 1870s as well as a revision of the Texas Probate code. As in Reuben Senterfitt’s term, while Gov. Allan Shivers felt free to grandstand on issues like the state budget, Lindsey had to ground policy in cold reality.

During the 1956 session, Shivers predicted that the Suez Crisis (in which Egyptian President Abdul Gamal Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal that had been controlled jointly by the British and the French, provoking a Middle Eastern war) would reduce the supply of oil from Arab nations and increase purchases of Texas oil. Shivers suggested there would be no need for additional taxes and predicted a budget surplus for the upcoming biennium.

Noting that projected spending for the 1956-1958 period was already $26 million above anticipated revenues, Lindsey sharply disagreed with Shivers, telling the press that it was “unfair to the men and women who will be serving in the 55th legislature to create the impression that the British, French, Russians, Egyptians and Israelis can solve all the financial problems of the state next year. On the contrary, the Legislature’s jobs will be one of the most difficult and unsettled to face any session since the end of World War II . . .”

Rayford Price, who won his first election to the state House in 1961 and became speaker 11 years later, suggested that Texas at mid-century depended too heavily on oil. “Oil had carried the state for many years, but the economy was changing and you needed to draw from your tax base,” Price said in a 2004 interview at his Austin home. As oil and agriculture declined in importance, however, and the state’s chief resources became financial and intellectual capital, the political establishment failed to make the transition, leaving institutions like public schools, colleges and hospitals perpetually shortchanged.

Significantly for the speakership, in 1955 Shivers won a third term in his own right as governor but scandals involving the state’s insurance industry and the veterans’ land program quickly overwhelmed his administration. Shivers became not just a lame, but also a severely wounded, duck his last two years in office. His decline meant an increase in power for Lindsey. No Texas governor had enjoyed the power held by Shivers until these scandals tarnished his golden touch.

Even with the influential Shivers as governor, however, speakers Senterfitt and Lindsey dramatically increased the power and prestige of their office in relation to the executive. They placed their stamp on the budget process, creating the unified budget system and, as Shivers grew more distracted in his last term, taking the reins on the contentious issue of taxes. While Shivers showboated and publicly dreamed about unanticipated tax windfalls from the volatile world oil market, Senterfitt and Lindsey were left with the pedestrian but more important duty of identifying where to cut the budget and on what and whom to increase the state revenue burden.

Waggoner Carr of Lubbock interrupted the Durwood Manford-Reuben Senterfitt-Jim Lindsey House speakership dynasty in 1957. Carr, born in Hunt County in East Texas and, like Lindsey, a veteran of the Army Air Corps during World War II, unsuccessfully opposed Lindsey’s 1953-54 speakership bid. Carr, however, won in 1957 and 1959 in two extremely close races. Known as an entertaining and riveting speaker, Carr campaigned energetically throughout his career, zooming from one speaking engagement to another in a private airplane. In a 2004 interview in Austin, Carr’s son David recalled campaigning with his father:

". . . [B]y the time I was born, he was [a politician.] . . . [S]o really [the] beginning of my life was when he was campaigning. My first memory . . . is having my diapers changed in the back of a Supercub, flying in a sandstorm in Lubbock, somewhere in West Texas, laughing while my mother was trying to change my diapers. "

Like a later West Texan to occupy the speakership, Billy Clayton, Waggoner Carr made a priority of creating a state water plan to aid his parched home region. The extended drought of the 1950s illustrated that the state’s growth could be deterred by the West Texas water shortage. Under Carr’s stewardship, the Legislature passed a Constitutional amendment, later approved by voters, creating the state’s first Water Development Board, a body authorized to issue $200 million in bonds to support local water projects.

Creation of this board represented the last major legislative project of the 1950s expanding state government and modernizing the economy, and it required another political effort, this time by Carr, to lift Texas communities from their traditional parochialism. As Carr said in a December 1955 speech in Denton, a month before he was elected as speaker.

"The way it now stands, one section of Texas does not want to be taxed to help another part of the state in securing water. Past Legislatures cannot be blamed too much for not passing legislation of this nature. We have got to put the entire state before any particular area."

Carr followed this by reminding his Denton audience of the likely need for more taxes in order to improve universities and public schools, to maintain prisons and to create an effective parole system. In addition to the water board, the Legislature under Carr created a tourism bureau, the Texas Youth Council, and set aside money to finance a new state library and archives building. Like the speakers who followed him, Carr’s political influence expanded with the growth of the state government. Fighting a pitched battle, Carr won a second term as speaker in 1958-1959 against Joe Burkett, Jr. of Kerrville, winning by a tight 79-71 margin. It had been an uphill struggle, but in a sign of the times, Burkett did not warn his peers, like Robert Calvert in an earlier day, that a second-term speakership represented tyranny.

Since 1949, the state of Texas had greatly expanded its responsibility for public education, provided for war veterans, supported cancer research, and improved care for the mentally ill, the elderly and the disabled. An earlier era of reformers sought simply to reform the moral behavior of the populace and believed that social improvement would follow. Conservative reformers from Senterfitt to Carr, however, set about creating a modern state, with its complex web of tax incentives, social services and business regulations.

Conservative reformers recoiled when it came to one longstanding issue: ending racial segregation. By the 1950s and 1960s, many Anglo politicians believed that political survival rested on public defense of segregation. Many, however, sensed Jim Crow faced certain judicial extinction and had become an economic liability for the state. Some Texas politicians took the path of Carr, who viewed the issue as divisive and unproductive, and tried to shunt discussion of segregation to the sidelines.

At the opening of the 1957 session, Speaker Carr told a newspaper, “There’s a determination [among House members] to keep this from blocking other needed legislation. I find a good bit of determination to see that segregation does not wreck the session.” Carr persuaded members of the rabidly pro-segregation East Texas delegation to allow the House to hammer out the state budget first before they grandstanded with bills aimed at countering federal court desegregation decisions. Texas’ African American and Mexican American leadership, however, would not leave that accommodation in place and in the process they would not only remake Texas society, but also change the face of the Texas Legislature and the identity of the state’s political parties forever.

Michael Phillips is the author of "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001" published in 2006, and "The House Will Come To Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics," co-written with Patrick Cox and published in 2010 by The University of Texas Press. His essay “Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” appears in "Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations," edited by Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León and published by Texas A&M Press in February 2011. He is currently coauthor of a new edition of "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story."

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