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 Texas : Features : Columns : All Things Historical

Liberal Where Liberal Isn't Cool

by Archie P. McDonald, PhD
Archie McDonald, PhD

Henderson County Judge Charlie Langford once told me that when he was adjudicating "hot oil" cases in the 1930s, he didn't know much about the law so every night he talked with assistant attorney general Ralph Yarborough to find out how to proceed. Ralph Yarborough, an old-fashioned, East Texas, New Deal Democrat, was a liberal in a state where liberal isn't cool.

Truth told, there was only a narrow window back in the l930s when liberal was cool in East Texas. But Yarborough kept the faith until the end of his days. Born in Chandler in 1903, Yarborough attended local schools, then spent a year at West Point before opting to attend Sam Houston State College. He later was graduated from the University of Texas Law School in 1927 and practiced law in El Paso until he joined the attorney general's staff in 1931. In 1936 Governor James Allred appointed Yarborough a district judge in Austin, and he won election to continue in the office later in the year.

Yarborough served in the Army during WWII, then returned to Austin and the practice of law. But elective politics called him. He unsuccessfully challenged Governor Allan Shivers for the Democratic nomination in 1952 and 1954. Yarborough's support primarily came from the "liberal" wing of the party, so Shiver's charged him with being an integrationist and the candidate of communist labor unions. The first charge was true. Yarborough also lost the Democratic primary nomination for governor to Senator Price Daniel in 1956, but won the winner-take all runoff in 1957 to succeed Daniel in the US Senate. He defeated George H.W. Bush in 1964, and served until losing a bid for reelection to Lloyd Bentsen Jr., in 1970.

Yarborough personified the "liberal" side of Texas politics in the days when Shivers, John Connally, even Lyndon Johnson until he became president, carried the banner for "conservative" Democrats. That left him on the outside in races for governor because conservatives always unified in the second primary. He was more successful in Senate races; in the first he only needed a plurality and in the second he enjoyed the advantage of incumbency.

And he was a different kind of senator. Yarborough was one of a handful of Southern senators who refused to sign the Southern Manifesto -- a pledge of resistance to integration -- and to vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1857. He sponsored significant legislation dealing with federal aid for education, most notably the extension of the GI Bill of Rights for "cold war" veterans.

Yarborough was an indefatigable campaigner, noted for always remembering a voter's name. I got to witness that phenomenal memory at work during the 1980s, long after he had ceased running for office. I had met Yarborough several times when he campaigned in or visited Nacogdoches, but he had no particular reason to remember me. When I greeted him at a meeting in Austin, he asked, with the habit of even well-educated Texans of ending sentences with a preposition, "Where are you from?" "Nacogdoches" nudged a brain cell and he immediately called my name. My colleague Carl Davis had related a similar story to me earlier, so I wasn't surprised -- impressed is more the word. Ralph Yarborough died in 1996, still liberal on social issues, still un-cool. He is buried in the state cemetery in Austin.

All Things Historical
April 15-21, 2001
A syndicated column in over 40 East Texas newspapers

Published by permission.

(Archie P. McDonald is Director of the East Texas Historical Association and author or editor of over 20 books on Texas)

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