Thursday, January 05, 2012

Scandal, 1950s Texas Style: Allan Shivers, Earl Rudder and the Veterans Land Swindle

This post marks the start of a series on the unpredictable career of James Earl Rudder. A Texas farm boy, Rudder became internationally famous as a D-Day hero. A political outsider, he cleaned house as Commissioner of the Texas General Land Office after one of the messiest scandals in the state's often corrupt political history. A deeply conservative man who lacked the proper academic credentials, he nevertheless ruled as president of Texas A&M when the tradition-bound school underwent sweeping reforms. Under Rudder, the school changed its name, desegregated, admitted women for the first time, changing and ended the requirement that students serve in its paramilitary "Corps of Cadets." This passage describes how Rudder came to be be named to head the General Land office by besieged Gov. Allan Shivers.

A cliché holds that politics is all about timing. No figure in mid-twentieth century Texas politics possessed a more uncanny sense of the moment than Robert Allan Shivers. A relative moderate during his early career in the state Senate, Shivers balanced his own personal conservatism with the pragmatic need to win votes among his relatively liberal, union-friendly, blue collar Port Arthur constituency. When anti-New Deal sentiments brewed among elite Texas voters in the late 1930s, Shivers transformed into an outspoken conservative without missing a beat. Throughout his career, he maintained an instinct for shifts in public mood and as governor he proved a master at manipulating racial and class resentments.

Born in 1907 in the tiny hamlet of Woodville, Shivers grew up in solidly middle-class surroundings. His father, Robert Andrew Shivers, taught until he earned a law license and won an election as County Judge in largely poor Tyler County. The family experienced more prosperity after moving to Port Arthur, a center of the state’s oil and chemical industry. First elected to the Senate’s Fourth District in 1934, Shivers mostly supported the liberal programs of Governor James Allred, a New Deal ally. Shivers voted for Allred’s proposal to tax chain stores, and also backed pensions for the elderly, poverty-stricken blind people, and impoverished children. If the younger Shivers initially seemed influenced by his father’s progressive-style politics, the future governor slowly shifted right after he married Marialice Shary, the daughter of millionaire citrus planter and land mogul John Shary of Mission, Texas in 1937.

As state senator, Shivers would marvel at country music radio performer and Hillbilly Flour impresario W.O. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel’s success in implementing regressive social and economic policies as Texas governor from 1939 to 1941. As governor, O’Daniel savagely cut Texas’ already feeble programs for the sick, the poor and the elderly while retaining the support of poor pro-FDR voters. O’Daniel’s faux populism further emboldened Shivers’ move to the right. As governor, O’Daniel “cut hospital beds, moneys for state wards, and slashed the highway budget by half. Still, public enthusiasm for O’Daniel did not wane.” Shivers learned much about Texas politics from O’Daniel. The governor’s “ability to appeal to ‘personal desires and personal emotions’ demonstrated to Shivers the power of ‘the psychological approach to almost everyone’s desire for love of mother, home, and country.’ O’Daniel’s rhetoric repeatedly convinced ordinary Texans that he understood them, even as he gutted public services.”

Sensing an anti-New Deal backlash centering on Roosevelt’s perceived friendliness with unions and African Americans, by the late 1930s the Port Arthur senator consistently supported O’Daniel’s anti-New Dealer appointments to state office. Shivers also endorsed an O’Daniel bill that banned violence or the threat of violence by strikers (while not sanctioning similar acts by employers) and voted as often against his labor constituency as he did with them.

As he grew more reactionary, Shivers drew a favorable response from Herman Brown, a deep-pockets conservative owner of a Texas construction empire who also sponsored Lyndon Johnson’s political career. Shivers would earn as well the patronage of right-wing oilmen like Arch Rowan and Hugh Roy Culllen. This provided the brash politician the capital to wage a serious race for lieutenant governor after he returned from service as an Army major in World War II. Facing journalist and legendary storyteller Boyce House and state representative and Houston lawyer Jo Ed Winfree in the Democratic primary, Shivers and his opponents managed a quiet, respectful race for lieutenant governor compared to the bitter-six man gubernatorial campaign eventually won by Beauford Jester. If Shivers specialized in racist demagoguery during the 1950s, his only foray into racial politics during the lieutenant governor’s race came when he declared unconvincingly that “I am the kind of Texan who believes that colored people do not want to attend school with the whites.” He still managed to get some support from organized labor and won enough votes to finish first in the primary and then win handily in the runoff, thus assuring his victory in the one-party state in the November 1946 general election.

“In politics there is really more to timing than in a track meet,” Shivers later observed. “ There generally is a time when the best man who offers for a position couldn’t be elected – either because of the lack of interest, or apathy of the voters, or because he really doesn’t have the opportunity to present his views. On the other hand, for exactly the same reasons with a few variations, there’s a time when almost anyone can defeat an incumbent.”

The moment definitely belonged to Shivers. Constitutionally, the lieutenant governor represents the most powerful public figure in Texas. Shivers skillfully expanded the reach of the office, playing a key role in passage of Texas’ right-to-work law, which banned unions from holding an election among workers and upon obtaining a majority vote declaring a work site a “closed shop” where all employees must join the union local. Unions needed the closed shop in order to prevent employers from undermining organizing efforts. The state’s right-to-work law greatly diminished the political influence of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations and strengthened already dominant conservatives within the Democratic Party. With his party faction reaching unprecedented dominance, Shivers used his stint as lieutenant governor to pursue an aggressive legislative agenda. He could claim credit for steering a revolutionary modernization of the public school system, the Gilmer-Aikin Laws, through the senate. Shivers also expanded funding for higher education, including the Texas State University for Negroes (now Texas Southern University), a move designed to bolster segregation as well as the university.

Shivers assumed the state's highest office on July 11, 1949 when Governor Beauford Jester died of a heart attack. As governor, Shivers cultivated establishment support for increased expenditures on education, old age pensions, and other progressive programs, but he avoided taxes on energy companies enjoying exploding profits in the 1950s and shifted the tax burden to consumers, particularly cigarette taxes which were particularly burdensome to lower-income voters. The governor enthusiastically embraced union bashing and McCarthyism, calling a special session of the Legislature in 1954 where he made a top priority of a bill that would Communist Party membership a crime punishable by death. Furthermore, Shivers undercut the Good Neighbor Commission that had been designed to monitor labor conditions endured by Mexican migrant farm workers in South Texas.

At a time of racial violence across the South, Shivers urged resistance to the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling ordering desegregation of public schools. The governor encouraged white mobs violently resisting a federal court order mandating desegregation of Mansfield schools in North Central Texas. There, enraged white mobs, ranging in size between 300 to 400 whites, surrounded the city’s high school on August 30 and 31, 1956 to block the enrollment of three African American students. Whites hanged three blacks in effigy, the black-faced dummies hanging in front of the Mansfield High campus for days. Other whites roughed up reporters and physically threatened the sheriff. Downtown stores shut down to support demonstrators while bands of thugs inspected cars entering town in order to prevent entry by civil rights supporters. Rather than maintain order and respect for the law, Shivers praised the Mansfield mobs and violated the court mandate by dispatching Texas Rangers to prevent desegregation.

Immensely popular through most of his two full terms, Shivers’ demagoguery won some votes, but he began to face strong opposition during a surprisingly close re-election bid in 1954 against liberal candidate Ralph Yarborough, an Austin lawyer. Shivers, a Democrat, alienated many in his party by publicly campaigning for Republican Presidential nominee Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Other Democrats worried about Shivers' violation of the gubernatorial two-term tradition in Texas. Earl Rudder, a friend of Shivers’, campaigned for the governor around Brady, He warned Shivers, however, of his declining popularity.

"Two things that are hurting me more in this area, is the third term proposition and leading us into supporting Eisenhower," Rudder advised in a letter. "Most of the type of persons who like to believe this still hold [President] Franklin Roosevelt as the greatest Democrats that ever lived. And it might be well to point out that he [Roosevelt] served more than two terms. Also I believe that he pointed out in his memoirs he voted Republican once during his political career."

A well-known World War II hero, James Earl Rudder was a good friend to have around for a political campaign. Born in 1910 in the tiny town of Eden in West Texas. Rudder graduated from Texas A&M in 1932 with a degree in industrial education and earned a commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Army Reserves. After working as a football coach and teacher at a small, rural high school, Rudder taught and coached at Tarleton Agricultural College in Stephenville, before being the Army activated him in 1941. He experienced a rapid rise in an authentically heroic career, rising quickly to the rank of lieutenant colonel and commanding the Second Ranger Battalion, a group that would become famous after D-Day in June 1944 as “Rudder’s Rangers.”

Hitting Normandy Beach on June 6 the French coast at Pointe du Hoc under blistering, lethal German fire, Rudder’s Rangers suffered a more than 50 percent casualty rate, grinding their way up 100-foot cliffs before reaching a nd destroying key Wehrmacht batteries. Within a year, Rudder commanded the 109th Infantry Brigade which endured the brutal Germnan counteroffensive in arctic temperatures in December and January of 1945. Rudder ended the war as a full colonel and had a chest full of medals, including the Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the French Legion of Honor with croix de guerre and palm. While in the Army Reserves in the 1950s, Rudder received promotion to Brigadier General.

Many returning World War II veterans found their combat records to be a distinct advantage in politics. Back in West Texas, Rudder won election as mayor of Brady from 1946 to 1952 before temporarily retiring from politics to run an aviation company. Rudder campaigned vigorously across the state for Alan Shivers during the 1954 race. “I think I’ve been around long enough to know a man when I see one,” Rudder told a Lufkin audience on June 21 as he introduced Shivers. Rudder briefly described his exploits in World War II and rhetorically made fellow veteran Shivers part of his band of brothers. “And Allan Shivers is a man – a man of integrity – a man of warm heart and raw courage . . . a dynamic leader, a man who won’t run away –- a man you can follow with complete confidence that he will do what is best for Texas.”

In spite of Rudder’s enthusiasm, Shivers faced a tough race. Forcing the incumbent governor into a runoff in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, Yarborough suffered a sound defeat in the second round only after Shivers painted him as an extreme integrationist and a communist dupe.
The governor may have won a third term, but events quickly swamped him in scandal. In 1955, Allan Shivers suffered the worst year of his political life.

The high number of failing insurance companies in Texas became a campaign issue in the 1954 gubernatorial race. The next year, US Trust and Guaranty, one of the major insurance carriers in the state collapsed in spite of inspection by state officials. This incident amply demonstrated the weakness of Texas insurance industry regulation. Texas chartered more insurance companies than any other state in the union, and many filed for bankruptcy in the mid-1950s. A subsequent investigation found that members of the state's insurance board accepted gifts from one bankrupt firm, ICT Insurance Company. ICT founder BenJack Cage was later indicted for embezzlement and bribery before he fled to Brazil. A.B. Shoemake once headed a $7 million bank and insurance empire as president of the bankrupt U.S. Trust and Guaranty Company of Waco. Facing investigation of his firm, he shot himself in the temple on January 7, 1956. Shoemake, however, survived the suicide attempt but spent the rest of his life as “a mind-less, helpless person being cared for by the Veterans Administration.” Many voters blamed Shivers for the state’s insurance mess. In yet another bout of negative press, questions arose over how Shivers' $25,000 option on a 13,500-acre land parcel in the Rio Grande Valley resulted in a $450,000 sale by the governor.

One of the largest scandals of the Shivers era broke in 1954-1955. Land speculators conspiring with officials from the General Land Office offered what seemed like no-lose propositions to mostly African American and Mexican American World War II veterans. Targeting illiterate former soldiers, some of whom spoke English as a second language, these speculators conned veterans into signing applications for state-backed loans to buy land the speculators owned. Such deals carried fat profits for the conspirators but left the veterans poverty-stricken, holding the loan notes.

Swindlers targeted about 600 veterans, telling the veterans that the land they were supposed to receive represented a reward they earned through military service during World War II and that the property would become theirs in three years’ time. Although a land program existed, no state agency provided land as a bonus. In 1954-1955, a series of newspaper articles published by the Cuero Record and an investigation by Dewitt County District Attorney Wiley Cheatham revealed that the signatures provided by these veterans enabled a massive land sale fraud launched by Texas General Land Office Commissioner Bascom Giles and his co-conspirators.

By 1955 what became known as the Texas Veterans Land Board Scandal thoroughly entangled Giles and other state officials, including members of the Texas Legislature, who now faced criminal charges. Giles, head of the General Land Office for more than 16 years, landed in jail. Ken Towery, the managing editor of the Cuero Record who first brought the biggest story of the year to public attention, won the Pulitzer Prize. And Allan Shivers, in an attempt to salvage his rapidly sagging reputation, named Earl Rudder as the new land commissioner. Rudder's impeccable image as a war hero provided Shivers some political breathing room as the controversy unfolded. For not the first time in his life, Rudder embarked on a rescue mission with risky prospects.

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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