Tuesday, April 12, 2011

White Backlash and the Rise of the Republican Party in Texas in the Early 1960s

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 discuss how racial politics played a role in the rise of the Republican Party in Texas in the early 1960s.

Liberals faced several disadvantages in Texas, including the poll tax requirement, which suppressed black and working class white voting; a run-off primary system, which favored better financed candidates; and the financial power of wealthy elites who overwhelmingly donated their campaign contributions to conservatives favoring their interests. Not surprisingly, therefore, the highly conservative Byron Tunnell, born in 1925 in Tyler, followed Turman as speaker. “He is definitely East Texas,” his wife Jan recalled of conservative roots. Tunnell, who died of cancer in 2000, enjoyed an unremarkable childhood in which his father “worked at anything he could find to feed the family,” according to Jan Tunnell. “He sold used cars, worked in a munitions plan.”

Tunnell served in the United States Navy Air Corps as a tail gunner on a P-51 aircraft in 1943 during World War II. He received his law degree from Baylor University in 1952. Returning to Tyler, he rose to the position of Smith County assistant district attorney, earning a reputation as a formidable trial lawyer who argued a case before the United States Supreme Court. He eventually opened a private practice with future Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock as a partner. The friendship would last a lifetime, and Tunnell delivered a eulogy when Bullock died in June 1999. Jan Tunnell said that this relationship inspired his interest in politics.

[T]hey called each other ‘brother.’ They hung a shingle together for a while, but I guess Byron started thinking about how he had some ideas on how Texas should be run, and ran for office . . . [O]ne of his ideas was that he wanted to see Texas as a solvent state.

Tunnell and Bullock both first won election to the Texas House in 1956. As noted before, Tunnell built a record as a fiscal and social conservative, which included support for segregation. Widely liked for his dry sense of humor, Tunnell steamrolled his way to the speakership in the 1962-1963 race. While Waggoner Carr’s two races for speaker and Jimmy Turman’s one campaign had been extremely close, Tunnell locked up the speakership with 94 pledges of support six months before the opening day of the Legislature in 1963.

Tunnell stood to the right of many House members. In a January 1965 Texas Parade magazine interview conducted when he appeared headed for a second term as speaker, Tunnell vented anger at recent Supreme Court decisions that mandated “one man, one vote” as the basis for political representation, even in local elections. By the early 1960s, Texas still left a number of Legislative seats to be elected "at large." Under this system, a county with two or more House seats could set up multi-district “super” districts to elect representatives at large. Voters in such districts could thus cast ballots in more than one House race and candidates were required to campaign countywide. This system diluted the representation of minority voters.

Two United States Supreme Court decisions affecting Texas, Baker v. Carr (1962) and Reynolds v. Sims (1964), banned this tactic under the principle of "one man, one vote.” The court ruled that members of both chambers of the state Legislature had to be elected from districts with approximately the same number of voters, which inevitably increased urban and minority representation in the Texas Legislature. Tunnell characterized these decisions as invasions of state sovereignty. “I’m still fighting for a constitutional amendment that would allow the states to determine the composition of at least one House of the Legislature on a basis other than population,” he said. Tunnell did not specify what that basis would be.

In spite of his conservatism, Tunnell made friends even with liberals thanks to his humor and even-handedness as speaker. He managed the House efficiently and fairly, making him one of the most well-regarded former speakers among his small circle of peers. “Byron Tunnell, I thought, maybe was one of the better speakers that we’ve ever had, from that group [of legislators in the 1950s and early 1960s], “ Rayford Price said.

Another former speaker, Ben Barnes, agreed. “Byron was very careful to tell everyone the truth,” Barnes noted. “Byron was very plain-spoken and he was candid and not very many people left his office not knowing where he stood on an issue.” Even Carl Parker of Port Arthur, then a liberal House member and later a state senator, described Tunnell at the time of the former speaker’s death as “the most capable speaker that I served under . . . Now, I didn’t like his policies. We differed on politics. But he ran an efficient House.”

Tunnell served a quiet term as speaker. Creation of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department represents one of the most significant pieces of legislation passed under Tunnell’s guidance. Speaker Tunnell also promoted another law, complementing legislation steered through the United States Congress by Senator Ralph Yarborough, that set aside part of the Texas coastline to become the federally protected Padre Island National Seashore. The federal seashore designation did not occur without opposition from area congressmen who argued that the bill would handicap economic development.

Passage of the National Seashore bill by Congress and enabling bills passed in the Legislature merit attention because of the close cooperation it suggests between a segregationist, archconservative House speaker and the state’s most powerful liberal in creating an important and enduring conservation site. Perhaps because of Tunnell’s leadership style, or because of the plan’s popularity with the general public, ideological opposites were able to cooperate in forging policy even during an intense battle for control of the state Democratic Party between liberals and conservatives.

The 58th Legislature’s makeup hinted that those ideological battles would no longer be contained entirely within the Democratic Party. The 1963 session included 10 Republican House members, the largest slate from the GOP since the days of Reconstruction. Since the late 19th century, the Republican Party lacked a political base. Voter restrictions such as the Terrell election laws virtually eliminated black voters who had reliably supported Republicans since the end of the Civil War. White Republicans had fought to eliminate the so-called “black and tan” faction of the party and to make the state GOP “lily white,” a feat largely accomplished by the 1920s.

Even segregated, however, the state Republican Party carried the historical baggage of being the party of emancipation and Reconstruction, stubborn facts that dampened white support in Texas. Between 1896 and 1950, no Republicans had been elected to the Senate from Texas while Texans sent only three members of the party to the United States House. No more than one Republican served in the state Senate or more than two Republicans in the state House in any single legislative session in that 54-year period.

The 1950s marked a key transition for Texas Republicans, its rise led by the still nominally Democratic governor Allan Shivers. Shivers openly campaigned for Republican presidential nominee Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, and for Republican Vice President Richard Nixon against Democratic Massachusetts Senator John Kennedy in 1960. In 1952, Eisenhower carried 53.2 percent of the popular vote in Texas, the first Republican to carry the state in a presidential race since Herbert Hoover beat the anti-Prohibition Catholic Al Smith in 1928.

Post-war economic growth produced a more economically diverse urban middle class that increasingly voted for Republican candidates in the 1950s and 1960s. Urban residents represented almost 60 percent of Texas voters by 1950 and increasingly, cities like Dallas and Houston and regions like the Panhandle and the area west of a line extending from Harris County to Midland County grew friendlier to the GOP. Democrats could no longer dismiss Republicans as serious candidates after 1961 when Republican John Tower won a special election to fill the Senate seat of Lyndon Johnson who had just been elected vice president. The following year, GOP gubernatorial candidate Jack Cox carried almost 46 percent of the vote against the Democrat, John B. Connally.

The GOP suffered a setback during Barry Goldwater’s disastrous presidential campaign against Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Johnson held a huge advantage in Texas and the ultra-right Goldwater did not help his own cause when he dismissed the hydrogen bomb as just another weapon that commanders should be free to use in Vietnam, called for the abolition of the income tax and declared in his speech at the Republican National convention that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

Texas Republicans suffered badly in the electoral debacle that followed. Nine of the 10 Republicans in the state House lost their bid for re-election. By 1968, however, the Texas congressional delegation for the first time since the 19th century included three Republicans, including future President George H.W. Bush of Houston, Robert Price of Pampa and Jim Collins of Grand Prairie. In a 1962 interview, Tunnell correctly noted what the increased power of the Republican Party in Texas indicated when he called it “a trend of thinking [towards conservatism.] There is no question about a movement to the right in Texas.”


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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