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  • Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

    Making Change in
    Ma Ferguson's Texas

    by Mike Cox
    Mike Cox
    To fully appreciate the late C.W. Wimberly’s story, it’s necessary to understand “Fergusonism” – a once-powerful brand of Texas populism.

    A farmer and lawyer from Bell County, Jim Ferguson became governor in1915. No matter if a citizen stood “fer ‘im” or “agin ‘im,” his leadership style evoked strong sentiment. When Ferguson tried to shut off money to the University of Texas, in 1917 the majority of the legislature went “agin” him, voting for impeachment. Tried in the Senate, he got expelled from office and barred from ever running again.

    Of course, the Legislature had no control over what Ferguson’s wife did, so in 1924 Miriam Ferguson campaigned for governor and got elected. Defeated in two subsequent Democratic primaries, “Ma” ran again in 1932 and once again the voters sent her (and her husband) back to the Governor’s Mansion. Mrs. Ferguson completed her term – a time blighted by pardons for pay and other corruption -- in 1935 and did not seek relection.

    “Fergusonism” finally began to wane as New Deal politics took over, but for more than two decades a person’s support for or opposition to the Fergusons constituted a major part of Texas politics.

    While “Fergusonism” prevailed statewide, all politics is local, and so is the story Wimberly told. He never said where it happened, other than a county seat in the cedarbrakes, which could be almost anywhere in Central Texas. It took place during the Depression, when political opinion ran as strong as the economy was weak. A lot of people were hurting, financially and emotionally.

    Even in good times, most towns had their old codgers, men with no visible means of support other than black coffee, tobacco and a sturdy walking cane. On a sidewalk bench near the courthouse or at the drugstore counter or in the café, these old timers spent their time talking or playing dominoes or both.

    These characters were well known, as much a fixture downtown as the clock atop the courthouse. Two of them, however, stood out as the senior old timers. Call them Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith.

    One afternoon, a shopkeeper on the courthouse square in the process of closing for the day witnessed a shocking scene. Using his cane as a weapon, Mr. Jones stood wailing on Mr. Smith, who while trying to protect his head from the blows otherwise offered no resistance to the vicious-looking assault.

    Rushing to the old man’s assistance, the woman ran into the street and waded into the fight. She pushed Mr. Jones to the ground but before she could remonstrate with him for whacking on Mr. Smith, he got up and ran off with surprising quickness for a man his age. When she turned to minister to the victim, the Good Samaritan found that, he too, had disappeared.

    The next day, his faith in the judicial system complete, the victim showed up at the courthouse office of the justice of the peace to swear out a complaint against his assailant. Not burdened with an overcrowded docket, the judge issued a warrant and soon had both men before him in his court.

    While Mr. Jones sat stoicly, the victim told his story. He had been brutally attacked without provocation, Mr. Smith said. Three solid blows had landed on his head before he could even raise his hands in an attempt to ward off further strikes. Before he escaped, the victim continued, Mr. Jones hit him four more times with his cane.

    When the judge asked why Mr. Jones had done such a thing, the victim declared:

    “I hadn’t done nothing but express a political opinion – I’m not the only man in Texas who thinks it’s a crying shame for Ma Ferguson to be sitting in the Governor’s chair for Jim, after he’s been impeached.”

    The judge’s face reddened. No one in the county supported the Fergusons more adamently that he. Even so, the judge maintained his impartiality. Turning to the defendant, the JP asked if he had anything to say. Mr. Jones nodded no.

    Demonstrating that justice is indeed blind, the still-fuming and ever-loyal Ferguson man wielded his gavel and declared the defendant guily as charged. Fine and court costs would be $17.50, he pronounced.

    Hearing that, the newly convicted miscreant stood and to the amazement of all present pulled a $20 bill from his pocket and handed it to the judge. His face now even redder, the judge fumbled around in his pockets, looked through his cash box and then threw himself on the mercy of the courtroom.

    “Anyone have change for a $20?”

    Everyone did a good job of acting surprised when they discovered that they, too, could not break that large a bill. With the judge just about to order a deputy across the street to the bank, the defendant spoke.

    “I believe I can save the court that trouble.”

    Shuffling over to Mr. Smith, he raised his cane and brought it down hard on the elderly man’s bald head.

    “At $2.50 a lick, that takes care of that $20,” Mr. Jones said. “I thank you, your honor, and a good day to you gentlemen.”

    Using his cane to steady himself, the old man slowly walked out of the courtroom, all occupants including the judge in stunned silence. The judge continued to sit quietly for a moment, taking due judicial notice of the red welt rising on the anti-Ferguson man’s pate.

    Finally, he slammed down his gavel and said only two words: “Next case.”


    © Mike Cox -
    May 16, 2012 column
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