Thursday, March 31, 2011

"On a Par in Importance With The Governorship": Conservatives and the Texas House Speakership in the late 1940s

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 Texas House Speakers gained authority even as the state entered a dark period of extreme conservatism.

The increased political activism of African Americans beginning in the 1930s, the growing Mexican American population, and the increasingly liberal drift of the national Democratic Party inspired a continued movement rightward for Texas Democrats. In fact, the Texas House speakership stood as an effective counterweight to the revolutionary changes that came to Texas during World War II and beyond.

In a nominating speech for the Dallas-born 44-year-old William O. Reed, state Representative John J. Bell told the House chamber, “The office of Speaker is on par in importance with the governorship.” The Dallas Morning News noted, “If this is not an accurate estimate, it is because Mr. Bell errs on the side of underestimation. For, if there is any commonwealth in the United States that is run by its legislative branch, it is Texas. And the Lower House, as the most productive source of legislation because of its large membership and as the controlling source of state finance, has a larger responsibility in state government than does the Upper House.”

In the late 1940s the question remained, power to what end? Reed experienced a childhood almost as tough as Calvert’s. Born the youngest of 10 children in the poverty-stricken Trinity River Bottoms, Reed reached only his first birthday before his father died. He held the reputation in his neighborhood as a street fighter, working as a newsboy for The Dallas Morning News. “In those days, that meant you could sell newspapers at any corner you liked – if you could fight off all the boys who wanted that corner,” a 1946 Morning News feature story on Reed reported. “Young Reed’s expert fists held down some good corners.” After dropping out of high school and working with the city water department, Reed landed a job in the Texas & Pacific accounting department. Hitting the law books at night, Reed earned a license and began working for the railroad company’s law department, specializing in railway rates.

In spite of his rough, working class origins, however, Reed quickly adapted the appearance and perspective of the ruling class. “Nowadays, you won’t suspect a rough-and-tumble background,” the Dallas News reported, “for Reed sports a trim moustache, [and] dresses his slender, lithe frame in sartorial perfection. His speech is quiet, dignified.” Even if Reed once threw off his glasses and charged towards a House colleague who had angered him until stopped by a sergeant-at-arms, Reed’s commitment to the ruling class went deeper than his clothing style. Unlike Calvert, his comrade in childhood poverty, Reed authored or presided over the passage of some of the most reactionary Texas legislation in the twentieth century.

To his credit as a House backbencher, Reed introduced a bill making it illegal for maternity homes to sell foundlings to prospective parents. But little in the rest of his career suggested such empathy for the underprivileged and struggling. Reed’s priority was a balanced budget. As a member of the Legislature, Reed authored the “pay-as–you go” amendment to the state Constitution approved by Texas voters in 1942. Up to that point, the state had no system for a unitary budget. Budgets were approved for respective programs and departments without regard to the state’s total spending for the biennium. As the state’s population expanded, so did its expenses and the result was fiscal chaos.

The state relied on deficit spending, often paying employees and even lawmakers in scrip. “The first paycheck I got would have to be discounted 20 percent to get money,” former speaker Claud Gilmer recalled. “There was a fellow with a little black box of money. He’d run around picking up these state warrants. Most people that were working for the state had no way to get away from this kind of guy.” Carson Gilmer later recalled his father receiving $8 a day in scrip as a legislator and taking the IOUs to grocery stores in Austin to buy food. The stores would accept the paper at only 60 percent of face value because the state was in such financial shambles. Gilmer had a law practice and owned shares of the telephone company, so he was not as hard hit as ordinary state employees who had to survive on only a portion of their already meager official salaries.

Economic conservatives like Gilmer, Reed and Coke Stevenson, who served as governor from 1941 to 1947, put together a state Constitutional amendment that limited deficit spending and required the state to operate on a pay-as-you-go basis. The state could deficit spend, but only in case of an emergency, and authorization of an unbalanced budget required approval of four-fifths of the House and Senate and the governor’s signature. With the state Legislature rarely in favor of tax increases, this amendment, which went into effect in 1945, meant that Legislators would have to rely instead on swinging the budget axe.

Other provisions of the amendment made the use of scrip by the treasury to pay bills illegal and required the state comptroller to certify whether biennial budgets were balanced before they could take effect. The amendment allowed the state to sell bonds in order to pay a deficit that had reached $34 million in 1941, the first year of World War II. Raising taxes and slashing already meager state spending on education, health care and other services also remained as options.

Governor Stevenson’s glacial response to a growing deficit recalls his approach to the speaker’s office. The pay-as-you-go amendment did make general sense economically, but Stevenson’s choices in how to implement it required more draconian budget cuts that jeopardized the poor. When Stevenson became governor, he “reduced funds for river authorities, starved school teachers, and abolished the Old Age Assistance Special Fund, which supported the aged, the blind, and dependent children,” according to historian Robert Dallek. As historian Kenneth Hendrickson put it:

. . . Stevenson’s economic policies were crude and shortsighted, and as the state’s needs for increased revenues became ever more critical, the governor ignored pleas for higher taxes. He could have supported (and perhaps even secured) a hike in the wellhead oil tax to bring Texas policy more in line with those of neighboring oil producing states, but he chose not to . . . When he left office in 1947, Stevenson was proud of the fact that the state budget was in the black. A deficit of thirty-four billion dollars in 1941 had been transformed into a surplus of thirty-five million dollars, but the quality of state services had declined substantially in the process . . ."

Only two years after Stevenson left the governorship, the state was forced to deal with the neglect given schools, hospitals and institutions for the mentally ill. The conservative dominance begun in the early modern period of the speakership pinched pennies at a terrible cost to state, leaving it unprepared for post-World War II realities. In contrast, the Great Depression, the New Deal and World War II laid the groundwork for higher expectations of the state government by Texans in the postwar era.


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.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Con Artist in the Governor's Mansion: The Reign of W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel of Texas

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 the tragically comic ineptitude of Texas Gov. W. Lee "Pappy" O' Daniel.

The influence of Texas House speakers grew spectacularly starting in the 1940s as a string of deeply divisive chief executives occupied the governor’s mansion. After two terms as governor, Allred’s departure in 1939 cleared the way for country musician and flour salesman W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel. Texas political historian Kenneth Hendrickson characterized O’Daniel as “[u]ndoubtedly one of the most incompetent individuals ever to hold the office of governor in Texas.”

An Ohio native who grew up in Kansas, O’Daniel became manager of a Fort Worth milling company. In 1925, he served as sales manager for Burrus Mills in Fort Worth, and was named director of radio advertising three years later. By 1931 O’Daniel launched a popular radio advertising campaign for his “Hillbilly Flour,” which featured the music of O’Daniel and a country and western band called the “Light Crust Doughboys.”

O’Daniel soon hosted a highly popular daily country music show built around Hillbilly Flour, music and bits of O’Daniel’s homespun wisdom. On Palm Sunday, 1938, he asked his listeners if he should run for governor. According to O’Daniel, he received 55,000 cards, letters and other responses, mostly urging his candidacy. O’Daniel called the Golden Rule his motto and claimed the Ten Commandments as his campaign platform. He also advocated a $30 monthly pension for all persons over age 65, elimination of the poll tax and a general tax reduction. Although O’Daniel never specified how he would fund his pension plan, he won the Democratic primary without a runoff.

It does not seem that O’Daniel spent any time planning how to translate his proposed old age pension or any of his other stated goals into legislation. Once in the governor’s mansion, O’Daniel suggested a “transaction” or value-added tax advocated by the Texas Manufacturers Association but opposed by other elements in the business community. O’Daniel, however, never worked very hard to move that idea through the House. When that idea fizzled, he supported a statewide sales tax.

Marion Price Daniel, Sr. arose in the House as one of the chief opponents of the sales tax. Born in Dayton, Texas, northeast of Houston, in 1910, no Texan would occupy more top posts in Texas government than Price Daniel, who at different times would serve as speaker of the House, attorney general, United States senator, governor and finally as a justice of the Texas Supreme Court. A graduate of Baylor University, Price Daniel set up a law practice in Liberty, where he was first elected to the state House in 1938.

In his freshman term, Price Daniel gained fame as part of the so-called “Immortal 56” House members who consistently voted down sales tax proposals to fund old-age pensions. He complained that a sales tax was regressive, hitting the poor the hardest and pointing out that O’Daniel’s plan would ban use of any other tax to fund pensions. O’Daniel vowed political vengeance after this defeat and campaigned personally against the “Immortals.”

After a difficult campaign, Price Daniel in 1940 won a second term in an election in which many of his allies, tagged as opposing pensions, lost. The following year, United States Senator Morris Sheppard died and O’Daniel shocked the state by appointing the 87-year-old, utterly senile Andrew Jackson Houston, the last surviving son of Texas hero Sam Houston, as his replacement. O’Daniel made the appointment to prevent a viable candidate from running as an incumbent against O’Daniel in the special election for the Senate seat the governor scheduled for June 28, 1941. Illness kept Houston from reaching the Senate floor until June, and after appearing at three sessions, he also died. O’Daniel prevailed in the special election by 13,000 votes over Congressman Lyndon Johnson of Central Texas, with vote fraud widely considered to have been the decisive factor
.
Price Daniel’s chief antagonist departed for Washington. The Liberty lawyer ran for speaker, prevailing over incumbent Homer Leonard of McAllen. With the United States already preparing for World War II and defense spending in Washington stimulating the economy, particularly in Texas, the Legislature found itself in no mood for new programs. The Legislature approved expenditures less than had been appropriated two years before. At the insistence of Coke Stevenson, now in the governor’s mansion, the session (at 121 days the shortest in modern state history) was the first in 40 years to not approve a single tax bill.

The 1943 session found the House under Daniel cautiously awaiting the uncertain outcome of a war and the advent of an unpredictable post-war economy. The world and the state, however, continued to change. The increased political activism of African Americans beginning in the 1930s, the growing Mexican American population, and the increasingly liberal drift of the national Democratic Party inspired a continued movement rightward for Texas Democrats. In fact, the speakership stood as an effective counterweight to the revolutionary changes that came to Texas during World War II and beyond.


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.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Paying the Price for Texas Conservatism: The Strange Career of Coke Stevenson, Part II

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 the remarkable career of Robert Calvert, once an abandoned child living in a state orphanage, who challenged Coke Stevenson's re-election bid for the state House speakership and who would himself rise to the office in 1937.

Reactionary Coke Stevenson set a revolutionary precedent when he ran for a second straight term as Texas speaker. No one who had ever held that position had done so before and by this simple act he greatly expanded the influence of the office. He entered the race for re-election in 1935 tagged as a “Ferguson” man -- a supporter of Governor Miriam "Ma" Ferguson and the power-behind-the-scenes (her husband Jim.) He entered the race, therefore, an opponent of Governor-elect James Allred, a strong supporter of FDR.

Stevenson held close ties to big industries, such as sulfur and oil. Allred’s actions as state attorney general, on the other hand, indicated his willingness to rein in corporations and bring them to court if they violated state regulations. “Nowhere have [big corporations] found in [Allred] the warmth of that welcome to which they have been accustomed,” reported the Austin American on January 8, 1935. “Not unnatural that their slogan should be ‘STOP ALLRED IN THE LEGISLATURE.’”

The departing Governor “Ma” Ferguson and her husband Jim openly backed Stevenson as their man. Allred, on the other hand, saw in Robert W. Calvert someone who could carry his reform programs in the Legislature. Perhaps no prominent political figure in twentieth century Texas overcame more obstacles to reach the limelight than Calvert. Calvert’s family lived in poverty and at age seven, the Tennessee native saw his father lapse into severe illness and die. Calvert’s mother Maud struggled to keep her family of five children together, settling in Corsicana where she earned a living running errands for ill or elderly people.

Desperately poor, Maud Calvert committed the eight-year-old Robert, his sister Maxie and his brother Grady to the State Orphan’s Asylum in Corsicana. In his memoir "Here Comes the Judge," he recalls the trauma of being torn from his mother. “When Superintendent W.F. Barnett [of the Asylum] came in an old Model T touring car to pick up the three of us to take us to the State Home, they had to pull me out from under my bed, screaming that I did not want to go.” Calvert spent the rest of his childhood in this institution and its schools.

The children living at the state home paid the price for the low priority Texas politicians placed on social welfare. Calvert’s sister died during the influenza pandemic of 1918. Conditions at the home bordered on the primitive. Calvert recalled, “We had a terrible infestation of rats in the building. Some of the little boys were bitten by the rats on various parts of their bodies, some on their face. One bit me through the end of one of my fingers during the night while I was sleeping; the finger became infected and the skin of the entire joint hardened and peeled off.”

He remembers during a mandated quiet time on Sunday afternoons, a employee at the home would gather up left-over bread and visit the boys’ dormitory and allow them to have their choice of the light bread, corn bread or biscuits she had gathered in a wooden box. “[She] made talks to us, had prayer, and invariably reminded us that we were wards of the State of Texas, and that the taxpayers of the State of Texas were good to us and blessed us with a good home. She would ask, ‘Children, who gave you this fine home?’ And she taught us to respond in unison, ‘The taxpayers of Texas.’ And then she would ask, ‘And how will you repay the taxpayers of Texas?’ And we were taught to respond, ‘By being good citizens.’”

In spite of unbelievable hardships, Calvert graduated from the high school provided at the orphanage. Calvert remembered that life improved upon the appointment of Odie Minatra as the home’s superintendent. Minatra started two public speaking societies at the institution’s high school and Calvert excelled at debate. Minatra noticed Calvert’s oratorical talents and dispatched the 16-year-old to the state Capitol to lobby for a new boys’ dormitory. It was an auspicious debut for the future legislator who persuaded the House and the Senate to appropriate $100,000 (about $962,000 in today’s dollars) to construct the dorm.

Minatra also initiated a “big brothers” mentoring program with Corsicana-area businessmen, and through this Calvert came under the wing of Luther Johnson, elected to Congress in 1922, and future Texas Governor Beauford Jester. The two, he said, later influenced his decision to enter the University of Texas law school. Calvert earned money for his tuition by working as a water boy at a refinery and then as an elevator operator at the state Capitol. He graduated, receiving his law license in 1931 before opening a law practice in Hillsboro.

Calvert first won election to the Texas House in 1933 from a so-called “flotorial district” that included Hill and Navarro counties on the western edge of North Central Texas. His experience in the state home deeply influenced his behavior in the state House. Calvert had been “raised at the State Home on an anti-Ferguson diet by Mr. Minatra, who . . . lost the superintendency of the State Home because of his anti-Ferguson persuasion.”

This placed him in direct conflict with the newly elected chief executive. In spite of his dislike for the governor and her husband, Calvert supported the speaker candidacy of Coke Stevenson. In his first term, Calvert rose as a leader of the anti-Ferguson forces, however, through his heated opposition to a bill that would have allowed Ferguson to replace the three incumbents on the state highway commission with five new commissioners who would serve for about a year and a half before they faced election in 1934.

“There was much talk during the gubernatorial campaign of 1934 about the Fergusons raising campaign funds by selling jobs to be delivered in the highway department once she was elected,” Calvert said. “. . . When the discussion of the bill started, the proponents had a safe margin for passage; but with all due modesty, I think this was one occasion when a speech on the floor of the House turned the tide on pending legislation.” Calvert attached an amendment that would postpone the reforms of the highway commission until the 1934 general election. With Calvert’s amendment, the bill passed the House by a 74-63 vote and sent it to the Senate, where Ferguson allies lost interest and failed to bring up the measure for consideration.

This set up the intense 1935 speaker’s race when Stevenson sought a second term. Before the Stevenson era, state newspapers provided little analysis of upcoming speaker contests. As in 1933, however, the 1935 speaker race received extensive newspaper coverage. Reporters depicted the race as a test of wills between incoming Governor Allred and the departing Fergusons. In spite of his public image as a reluctant politician compelled to serve his constituents, Stevenson ran his campaign with Machiavellian zeal. Stevenson’s supporters circulated a petition asking the speaker to run. Calvert already signed a petition for Bert Ford, a representative from McLennan County, so he told the Stevenson people no.

The persons circulating it (the petition) said there was no possibility that Stevenson would return to the [H]ouse and offer for the speakership again; they simply wanted to make this a showing of confidence in the event he became a candidate for governor. I told them to change the petition to read that and we would support him for governor and I would sign; otherwise I would not.

When 115 members signed the petition, Stevenson announced that he had enough votes for a second term. Told that some members had thought the petition was a vote of confidence for a potential gubernatorial race, Stevenson denied this. His move, however, forced Ford to drop his campaign. Calvert said that he and 11 other anti-Ferguson representatives decided to oppose Stevenson. Calvert entered the race with his 11 supporters against the 115 men who had signed Stevenson’s petition. Allred’s victory in the Democratic gubernatorial primary gave Calvert much needed momentum and the governor-elect openly supported Calvert.

By the last week of the campaign, Calvert said he was winning the race. In an attempt to prove he still enjoyed the support of the majority of House members, Stevenson asked his backers to wear red carnations. Fewer than the required 76 representatives, however, wore the flowers on their lapels. When House members cast ballots Stevenson won 80-68, a much closer race than anyone anticipated. Regardless, such was the power of Stevenson that Governor-elect Allred felt compelled to immediately meet with the newly re-elected speaker and declare peace before assembled reporters.

By winning, Stephenson had recreated the speaker’s office. The fact that Jim Ferguson and James Allred used the speaker campaign as a proxy battle for control of the Democratic Party provided a frank acknowledgement that, in the right hands, House speakers could hold considerable power in their own right.

Stevenson and Allred soon found themselves on a collision course. Under Ferguson, Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment authorizing payment to the elderly and the poor. The amendment, however, did not specify a funding mechanism for the program. After rejecting a proposal for a state sales tax that he saw as being regressive, Allred suggested various business taxes and even an income tax to fund the pensions. Stevenson responded with his favorite tactic: slowly lighting his pipe, endorsing no proposals and doing nothing while he insisted the problems would solve themselves. Allred proposed the transfer of $3 million from state highway funds to keep the pension checks flowing, but again Stevenson stymied the initiative, insisting that “gasoline taxes and other motor imposts were special taxes that . . . could be used only for . . . building and maintaining highways.”

Stevenson turned his attention to the office of lieutenant governor. Calvert, a hero to legislators because of his fierce opposition to the Fergusons, faced no opponent in his race for re-election in 1936 and he ran unopposed for speaker. “In the ‘30s, speakers did not have legislative programs of their own,” Calvert wrote. “I had no legislative program which I called the speaker’s program, except that I did state to members of the house that I felt that the program advocated by Allred [who had been re-elected as governor] . . . was entitled to fair consideration.”

Calvert underestimates the role he played as speaker when Stevenson became lieutenant governor. Together, Allred and Calvert enjoyed a relatively productive session after the reactionary Stevenson years. Calvert, who had been active in setting up the Old Age Assistance Commission in 1935 (which later became the Texas Department of Human Services), had not forgotten his youth in the state home and successfully advocated laws benefiting neglected, blind and dependent children. By 1939, he had played a key role in passage a law extending the power of the Railroad Commission to regulate how much oil each well in the state could produce. If his predecessor proved the power of speakers to obstruct, Calvert proved the critical role speakers could play in enacting legislation.


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.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

"Reactionary, penurious, and in some cases downright cruel": The Strange Career of Coke Stevenson, Part I

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 the rise of what might be the first modern Speaker of the Texas House, a reactionary conservative named Coke Stevenson.

The transition to a political modern era did not proceed smoothly in Texas. Conservatives in the 1930s like Speaker Coke Robert Stevenson held no interest in expanding state government. In terms of economic policy, his two terms as speaker from 1933-1937 seemed a throwback to the harshest stinginess of the so-called “Redeemer” governments that followed Reconstruction. What was revolutionary about the Stevenson era was how the power of the speakership itself expanded, even if Stevenson primarily used that power to obstruct rather than implement reform.

No speaker had ever wielded so much influence as did the man born in a Mason County log cabin March 20, 1888. The son of a teacher, Stevenson had a rootless childhood but by 1905 the family settled in Junction in Kimble County. At age 16, Stevenson launched his first business venture, running a freight line from Junction to Brady. Originally seeking an accountant’s job at Junction State Bank, he took the only opening available, that of janitor and errand boy. Quickly, however, he moved up to clerk and by 1909 his boss promoted him to cashier.

Largely self-taught, Stevenson pursued a law license and won admission to the bar in 1913, successfully running for Kimble County attorney in 1914. In 1918, he won a two-year term as county judge, stepping down to resume his private law practice. By 1921, the First National Bank board in Junction named him president and Stevenson expanded his financial empire to include ownership of a newspaper (the Junction Eagle), a hotel, a movie theater, and a Ford dealership. In 1928, a group of Kimble County ranchers fanned the ten-county district in search of a candidate who would press the Legislature to pay hunters for eliminating wolves feeding on area livestock and persuaded Stevenson to run for the state House.

After winning, Stevenson’s first stab at reducing the wolf population in his district backfired. The state payments for killed and trapped wolves attracted scam artists who brought in wolf carcasses from outside Kimble County to claim the bounty. Stevenson then pushed through a bill that outlawed transportation of wolves across county lines. Early on, he showed his fiscal conservatism. He later reported feeling shocked when he discovered during his first term in the House that the state had no auditing system. Stevenson authored a bill creating the office of state auditor, the first step towards giving Texas a modern budget system.

Stevenson’s role in crafting this law showed his early acumen in House procedures. As his bill for predator control indicates, he welcomed the use of government power to aid wealthy landowners to protect their investments. Stevenson however was an extremely cautious spender, which became apparent when he vigorously opposed Governor Ross Sterling’s plan to sell $100,000,000 (approximately $1.2 billion in today’s dollars) in bonds for highway construction and to compensate counties that had bond indebtedness for road construction.

After the Senate approved submitting an amendment authorizing the bond sale to voters, the House needed 100 affirmative votes to place the measure on the ballot. As many as 99 House members voted in favor of the bonds, but Stevenson’s “no” faction held strong through several roll calls, striking down Sterling’s road program. Stevenson steered through a compromise measure in which the state highway department was provided a yearly budget from which construction funds would be drawn.

Stevenson’s success in opposing Governor’s Sterling’s highway plan marked him as a star legislator and propelled him to the speakership in 1933. Stevenson’s friendly relationship with Ma and Pa Ferguson also helped. Stevenson emerged as leader in part because of charisma augmented by a vicious sense of humor. While hunting with a lobbyist and several legislators, a rancher who was friends with Stevenson told him of a horse on the property that was so old it should be destroyed. The rancher asked Stevenson to do the job.

As the car carrying the hunters passed by the intended target, Stevenson asked the driver to stop, whereupon he got out and declared, “I think I’ll kill that ol’ horse.” Stevenson raised his muzzle and shot the animal in the head. His unsuspecting companions stared at Stevenson until the lobbyist finally asked, “Why did you shoot that horse?” “I just always wondered what it would feel like to shoot a horse,” Stevenson replied. “”Now I’m wondering what it would feel like to shoot a man.”

Perhaps the incident was meant as a practical joke, but as a politician, Stevenson proved he could be as coldhearted as a man who would kill just to satisfy curiosity. “Throughout his political career, Stevenson had been an ultraconservative,” Texas political historian Kenneth E. Hendrickson wrote. “ . . . He exhibited no liberal tendencies at all and few that could even be described as constructive; he was a reactionary, penurious, and in some cases downright cruel.”

Irony marked Stevenson’s alliance with incoming Gov. Miriam Ferguson, who served her second non-consecutive term as the state’s chief executive from 1933 to 1935. Stevenson opposed social welfare on principal, but one of Ferguson’s boldest initiatives was the issuance of a $20 million bread bond to buy clothing and food for the poor who were the worst hit by the Great Depression. Ferguson and her husband Jim (who many believed ran the government behind the scenes) opposed the Progressives in the teens and the 20s, but this time the pair aligned with President Franklin Roosevelt and the Texas liberal faction.

The 1933 session proved the longest to date in Texas history, ending one week short of five months as the Legislature dealt with the deepening Depression. As speaker, Stevenson cultivated an image as a long tall Texan who refused to be rushed into a decision. Charles E. Simons, writing in a March 1942 edition of Texas Parade, summed up the seemingly easy-going style with which the Junction businessman commanded the Texas House:

While the members were milling or shouting or debating and wrangling, Stevenson would calmly load and light his pipe and solemnly puff while he pondered the situation and watched the ebb and flow of the tide. Picking the psychological time, he would gather up the loose ends, bring them up short with a pointed observation and gentle the members into getting about the business at hand.

Stevenson certainly proved a commanding presence as speaker. He “kept greater order by rapping on the speaker’s podium with his pipe than most of us have done with a five-pound gavel,” as Ben Barnes, speaker from 1965-1969, commented in a July 16, 1966 Bay City speech.

By the end of the 1933 session talk already buzzed around the Capitol about a possible gubernatorial run by the speaker. During Stevenson’s debut term, one significant piece of legislation with long-lasting consequences reached the governors desk: the creation of the Lower Colorado River Authority, which built dams, parks and other public facilities that controlled flooding, provided recreation and improved the economy of central Texas. Miriam Ferguson chose to not run again in 1934 after serving a relatively uncontroversial two-year term. Stevenson, however, decided to bide his time.

James Allred of Bowie, who handily defeated former House Speaker Robert Lee Bobbitt in a 1930 race for state attorney general and captured the office for a second term two years later, emerged as a leading gubernatorial candidate. Allred ran on a modest platform calling for creation of a public utilities commission, placing the repeal of Prohibition before voters, creating a more modern, better-trained and efficient state police force, cutting taxes, granting more power to the state board of pardons and parole in order to prevent future abuses of power by governors (as some said happened under the Fergusons), and regulating the activities of lobbyists.

Allred was a more genuine liberal than the Fergusons, who lacked a coherent ideology. He “focused on reform of the capitalist system without destroying the foundations for free enterprise.” Texas Progressives had obsessed on cultural causes for poverty and other social ills, paying little attention to economic policy. Economic liberals of the 1930s and beyond, however, believed unregulated free markets undermined democracy. To men like Allred, capitalism left unrestrained by government created an uneven distribution of wealth, unemployment, and allowed the abuse of power by big business.

Allred won the Democratic nomination for governor with a 4,000-vote margin. The 1935 speakers’ race entangled thoroughly with the gubernatorial campaign. Stevenson, who as a member of the House had already displayed more power and influence than previous governors Ross Sterling and Ma Ferguson, took the unprecedented step of asking for a second term as speaker.

This event, longtime Capitol correspondent Sam Kinch, Jr., argues served as the most pivotal event in the speakership’s history. Before Stevenson, Kinch writes, the speaker: ". . . generally was a strong, independent-minded person who presided over a collection of similar individuals for a single 2-year term and then resumed regular legislative service as a member. Beginning about 1935, though, the office of speaker began evolving into something else, something more powerful and politically important. Aspiring public officials began seeking the office not as a service to their colleagues but as a route to upward mobility.

Stevenson’s opponent in the 1935 speaker race, Robert W. Calvert, warned that tyranny would result from a multi-term speakership. By this point, however, Stevenson had emerged as leader of the state’s conservatives. Several historical factors, historian George Norris Green argues, promoted a conservative hegemony in Texas by the late 1930s. Texas’ experience as an independent republic, as part of the losing Confederacy, and as a western outpost angry at what was perceived as Washington’s weak response to Native American resistance all laid the precedent for a troubled relationship with Washington, D.C.

Additionally, troubled race relations fed elite fears of a powerful federal government, particularly in the realm of civil rights. The worry of Texas conservatives that the White House might enforce black voting rights rose with Franklin Roosevelt’s ascension to the White House in 1933, the same year Stevenson became speaker. If conservatives collaborated with the New Deal in Roosevelt’s first term, Texas politicians like John Nance Garner and Stevenson expressed estrangement in the second half of the 1930s.


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.

The Oil Boom and the Onset of the Great Depression in Texas

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 the dramatic impact of the oil boom and the collapse of the American economy in 1929-1930 on Texas politics.

Two events almost simultaneously marked the birth of a more complex economy in Texas. In October 1929, the stock market crashed, bringing mass unemployment and a widespread skepticism of the technical and economic experts so revered by Progressives but now blamed by some for the financial collapse.

Shortly afterward, in late 1930, Columbus Marion "Dad" Joiner discovered a major oil field near Kilgore, Texas, which soon accounted for one-third of the nation's then-known oil reserves. Independent oil producers quickly realized the potential of the Kilgore strike and rushed in, grabbing 80 percent of the field before major oil firms set up claims. By 1933, the chief year of production, the East Texas field produced an amount of oil equal to the total production in the rest of the state.

The Kilgore gusher affected oil prices nationally. Prices dropped from just over a dollar a barrel in 1930 to, briefly, as low as two cents a barrel in 1931. Major oil producers complained that Kilgore independents had depressed the world oil market. During the Populist era, the state had created the Texas Railroad Commission, and by the 1930s the Legislature had given the commission the power to prorate oil – to establish the maximum amount of oil that could be pumped from individual wells. The commission could act if excess production threatened future oil supplies or the environment. It was uncertain constitutionally whether the commission held the authority to slow oil production just to keep prices high for producers. Nevertheless, in 1931, the commission issued a proration order on Kilgore production, soon stalled by a court injunction. Many independents ignored the commission.

East Texas business elites pressured Governor Ross Sterling, a former Humble Oil executive, to intervene and on August 17, 1931, he issued an executive order commanding Kilgore producers to stop drilling, sending National Guard units to the field. As a result, workers and producers enjoying the benefits of the oil boom perceived Sterling as a tool of Humble, Standard Oil and other major producers.

Meanwhile, a simultaneous collapse of cotton prices from ten cents to five cents a pound, also due partly to overproduction, had a devastating impact on the state economy. Unemployment reached 23 percent in Houston and thousands of the unemployed tramped across the state by foot or rail in search of work. Officials turned off half the streetlights in Houston to save electricity. Beaumont turned off streetlights completely while slashing that city’s school budget by half and reducing the library appropriation to almost nothing. Across the state, the Depression severely hit those most economically vulnerable: women, Mexican Americans and African Americans. Afro-Texans suffered nearly twice the white rate of unemployment.

Buffeted by the simultaneous collapse of farm and oil prices, the state tried in vain to prop up the economy, with Speaker Fred Minor (who presided over the House from 1931 to 1933) assisting in passage of landmark legislation that gave the Railroad Commission the power to regulate oil production and stabilize prices. Again, conservative Democrats dramatically increased the power of the state government, but this time it was due to economic desperation rather than Progressive idealism.

By 1934, the state Legislature passed a law requiring refiners to disclose totals of petroleum refined and the sources of that petroleum. The Legislature also passed the Connally Act, named for Texas Senator Tom Connally, which made it illegal to transport “hot” oil, that pumped in excess of state-imposed limits. These laws greatly strengthened the ability of the Railroad Commission to enforce its orders, leading to a consolidation of production in the hands of major producers who gained control of 80 percent of the East Texas oil field.

This consolidation created a new class of Texas super-rich oilmen who moved their corporate offices from Tulsa, Oklahoma, which had been the center of the industry, to nearby Dallas, which became the capital of East Texas production. Texas oil tycoons became a political factor in the state after World War II and received national attention in the 1950s and 1960s as they began to fund far-right wing and rabidly anti-communist political organizations and radio and television broadcasts.

Conservatives regained power in the 1930s, a hold they have yet to relinquish. This, however, was not Bailey-style “Jeffersonian” conservatism. “The greatest effect [of the Progressives] . . . was on attitudes towards the power of government,” Gould asserts. “As legislation and bureaucratic action demonstrated the benefits the state could convey, the old Democratic faith in localism and obstruction perceptibly relaxed.”


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.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Oil, Urbanization, The Klan, and the Birth of Modern Texas

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 the ugly, anti-black political atmosphere that arises as the state become more urban and less dependent on cotton.

To understand the subtle but significant transformation that the Texas speakership underwent between the 1920s and the late 1940s requires a detailed look at the social changes the state experienced in the period. This period marked a transition from the age of “King Cotton” to the age of oil with the January 10, 1901 discovery of the Spindletop oilfield, found atop a salt dome formation near Beaumont.

Investors poured billions of dollars into Texas in search of more oil and natural gas, producing cheap fuel that forever changed American transportation and the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, Beaumont, Port Arthur, Orange and other communities on the state’s Gulf Coast became major centers for oil refining and storage while corporate giants destined to economically dominate the twentieth century, such as Texaco, Gulf Oil, the Sun Oil Company, the Magnolia Petroleum Company, and Exxon (Now Exxon-Mobil) trace their origins to the Spindletop boom. Spindletop accelerated the state’s transformation from a Southern, agricultural province to a more powerful, more urban, more technological, and more Western financial powerhouse.

Texas remained mostly rural at the start of the 1920s, but population growth in cities increased 10 times faster than in the countryside. By 1919, about 33 percent of Texas’ population lived in urban centers, with 15 percent living in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio alone. Of necessity, the speakership changed as the state underwent metamorphosis. The oil economy was volatile, pressuring the state government to enact more regulations to prevent wild fluctuations in energy costs from undermining economic growth.

Elites, meanwhile, feared that increased industrialization would fuel the rebirth of political radicalism, represented by the Populists and other movements that battled dominant Democrats from the 1870s to the 1890s. Governors used the Texas Rangers to crush strikes. Red baiting joined racial demagoguery as favored tactics by conservatives who re-asserted power in the state House following World War I. State newspapers portrayed unions as violent and dictatorial while business groups formed “open shop associations” that boycotted union workers.

Already bad race relations in Texas took giant steps backward as living conditions for Afro-Texans deteriorated. In 1891, the Legislature passed a law requiring railway segregation and streetcar segregation in 1907. Although blacks comprised 20 percent of the state’s population by 1900, they represented 50 percent of the state’s prisoners. Many suffered virtual slavery, with African American men often sentenced on trumped-up charges of vagrancy and then leased as labor to wealthy landowners. Death rates from tuberculosis, typhoid, malaria, and other diseases among leased prisoners at times reached a stupefying 50 percent.

Race riots erupted across the state. In 1908 in Beaumont, whites burned two black amusement parks following the arrest of a black man for raping a white woman. Similar events broke out in Sherman, Port Arthur, Houston and other cities. Texas compiled a shameful record of lynching. From 1882 until 1930 lynch mobs murdered 492 Texans including 143 whites and 349 blacks, the third most lynchings in the nation. In May 1916, a mob of 15,000 burned to death a black youth, Jesse Washington, while children stood in attendance. For the most part, the state’s daily newspapers only sporadically condemned mob violence on their editorial pages.

Few should have been surprised by this turn of events following World War I since the Progressives rose to power on black disenfranchisement. Progressives helped set the stage for the 1920s Ku Klux Klan. Their xenophobia, dry politics, and self-righteous moralism overlapped with the re-born Klan’s political agenda. Anxiety over Eastern and Southern European and Mexican immigration from 1880 to 1920 inspired the birth of the revitalized Klan, which preached an anti-black, anti-federal government, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant gospel. By the mid-1920s, the organization could boast of approximately 3 million members nationwide.

Progressive elites in Texas often enjoyed Klan support. Former Speaker Neff, who served as governor from 1921-1925, won a “favorable” rating from the state Klan, due in part to his conspicuous silence on the organization and his apparent efforts to quash the Texas Rangers’ investigation of Klan violence. Another former Progressive speaker, Thomas Love, supported Klan candidate Felix D. Robertson when he ran unsuccessfully against Miriam “Ma” Ferguson in the 1924 gubernatorial race. Love rationalized his support on the grounds that the Klan supported Prohibition and that Ma Ferguson’s husband Jim, expected to be the power behind the throne, had led a scandal-plagued administration before his 1917 impeachment, rendering the Fergusons morally unfit to govern.

The Klan used its influence to sweep into office state representatives and senators, mayors, county judges, sheriffs, and countless other officials. By 1923, the Klan politically controlled Dallas, Fort Worth, and Wichita Falls, with Dallas boasting the nation's largest Klan chapter. A large percentage of the state’s House delegation to Washington either belonged to or supported the Klan and a majority of the Thirty-Eighth Texas Legislature held Klan memberships. This meant prospective speakers had little to gain by tangling with the Klan.

The gathering conservative backlash of the 1920s also gained force from the right wing of the Democratic Party. Reactionary Democrats felt fury over what they saw as the President Woodrow Wilson and other Progressives’ betrayal of the party’s traditional Jeffersonian ideology of limited government. Joseph Weldon Bailey, U.S. Senator from 1901 to 1911, angrily resigned his Senate seat over the dominance of Progressives in the national Democratic Party and campaigned hard retake control of the state party. In 1920 Bailey entered the race for governor, facing off against Progressive former speaker, Pat Neff.

Anti-Progressives like Bailey and Jim Ferguson opposed Prohibition, women’s suffrage, taxes, and United States participation in the League of Nations. Other than rolling back Progressive legislation, however, Democratic conservatives had no real platform. Instead, Bailey spewed crude racism everywhere he campaigned. Rather than support increased teacher pay, for instance, Bailey opposed a bill that would raise pay for federal workers because “under it . . . the negro men who clean out the cuspidors and the negro women who scrub the floors of our Federal buildings in Texas would be paid more than the white school teachers of Texas.”

It never occurred to Bailey, apparently, that teachers’ salaries could be raised. At another campaign stop, Bailey proclaimed he had “no prejudice against the negro, mind you. I like the negro in his place. It’s all right if Massachusetts wants to permit negroes to intermarry. It’s a matter of taste. No, not altogether a matter of taste either. It’s partly a matter of smell.”

Former Texas House speaker Robert Ewing Thomason represented the most genuine Progressive in the 1920 gubernatorial race. The forty-one year old Tennessee native and University of Texas law school graduate first won election to the state Legislature from El Paso in 1916. A Prohibitionist, Thomason served on the House committee investigating charges against Governor Jim Ferguson in 1917 and wrote the report condemning the governor’s actions. In his legislative service, Thomason also successfully advocated creation of the state’s first worker’s compensation law and a bill creating the state highway commission. He became a strong supporter for women’s voting rights and rose to the speakership at the urging of colleagues during his second term in 1919.

“I have accepted a heavy responsibility,” Thomason said upon winning the leadership post. “[L]iquor is bad; women should vote; only citizens should vote; capital and labor should be friends; we need mass education and a University of the first class.’” Speakers traditionally did not engage in legislative debates or propose bills while presiding over the House. Thomason, nevertheless, said one of his proudest moments as speaker came when he stepped down temporarily from the dais to oppose a bill authorizing the use of the Texas National Guard to suppress strikes.

Such pro-labor sentiment from the speakership would virtually disappear after Thomason’s term. Most relevant for the 1920 gubernatorial race, however, he also advocated repeal of the poll tax, arguing that blacks and Mexican Americans were already excluded from voting in primaries by Democratic Party rules. This opened him to racist attacks by his chief gubernatorial rival Pat Neff. Thomason saw his lead in the gubernatorial race peak in early July but disappear by the time of the primary later that month. The primary left Bailey in the lead, facing Neff in a runoff. In the August 28 second round, Bailey received only 40 percent of the vote and Democratic nominee and former speaker Neff stood assured of victory in the November governor’s race.

Neff, however, entered the governor’s office with a slim agenda. In the end, Progressivism touched few people where they lived. So much attention was devoted to alcohol as a root of all social evils that once Prohibition became the law of the land, Progressives felt they had little left to do. On matters of social justice, as historian Lewis Gould points out, the Progressive record in Texas proved particularly scanty. “While a few educators, journalists and politicians called for effective child labor, minimum wage and public health laws between 1911 and 1921, the majority of citizens remained cool to effective governmental intervention in these areas,” Gould writes.

Minimum wage laws for women and children remained on the books for only two years and the suggestions of child and family advocates went largely ignored while Progressives expressed little concern about the state’s poisonous race relations. However, the Progressive cupboard was not entirely bare. Rising prosperity and an expanding population brought some improvement to the lives of many Texans, especially if they lived in cities with more public services and job opportunities. Women, who gained the right to vote in the 1920s, now exerted more political influence and made some headway in the workplace. Nevertheless, although the foundations for change were laid, Texas remained tied to its Southern traditions, both cultural and political, until the Great Depression.


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.

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.