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Once Upon a Time in Texas

Once Upon a Time in Texas
A Liberal in the Lone Star State

Series: Focus on American History, Edited by Don Carleton

April 2002
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296 pages | 6 x 9 | 21 b&w photos |

Once upon a time in Texas...there were liberal activists of various stripes who sought to make the state more tolerant and more tolerable. David Richards was one of them. In this fast-paced, often humorous memoir, he remembers the players, the strategy sessions, the legal and political battles, and the wins and losses that brought significant gains in civil rights, voter rights, labor law, and civil liberties to the people of Texas from the 1950s to the 1990s.

In his work as a lawyer, Richards was involved in cases covering voters' rights, school finance reform, and a myriad of civil liberties and free speech cases. In telling these stories, he vividly evokes the "glory days" of Austin liberalism, when a who's who of Texas activists plotted strategy at watering holes such as Scholz Garden and the Armadillo World Headquarters. Likewise, he offers vivid portraits of liberal politicians from Ralph Yarborough to Ann Richards (his former wife), progressive journalists such as Molly Ivins and the Texas Observer staff, and the hippies, hellraisers, and musicians who all challenged Texas's conservative status quo.

  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Texas, Our Texas
  • 2. Coming of Age in Waco and Austin—1950s Style
  • 3. Off to Dallas to Practice Law
  • 4. The 1960 Election: The New Frontier Beckons
  • 5. Returning to Dallas Hat in Hand
  • 6. Representing Labor Unions in Dallas, Texas
  • 7. Dallas, 1966: The Federal Courts and the Winds of Change
  • 8. The Radical Left Shows Up in Texas
  • 9. A Gleeful Return to Austin
  • 10. Changing the Face of the Texas House of Representatives
  • 11. Life and Times with U.S. District Judge Jack Roberts
  • 12. The Texas Department of Public Safety Gets Caught Snooping on "Radicals" at the Unitarian Church of Dallas
  • 13. Frank Erwin and UT Take on the Rag
  • 14. Law and the Counterculture
  • 15. Austin Politics—Come the Revolution
  • 16. Student Voting Comes of Age
  • 17. Redistricting East Texas in the 1970s
  • 18. Mad Dog Memories
  • 19. Of Time on the River
  • 20. A Decade or So of Voting Rights Wars in Texas
  • 21. "The Times They Are A-Changing"
  • 22. The 1982 Elections: Triumph of the Yarborough Democrats
  • 23. The 1990s and the Last Guffaw
  • 24. The Trail Doubles Back

Today, David Richards lives in Mill Valley, California. An attorney in private practice since 1957, he has also served as head of litigation in the Texas Attorney General’s Office, as general counsel for the Texas AFL-CIO, and as a cooperating attorney for the Texas Civil Liberties Union.


Guy Clark has a line, one of many, that speaks volumes about how I feel about Texas: "Here comes Texas rolling through my mind / ain't nothing to it momma, don't be crying, / just one of those things that everyone goes through." As I have struggled with this memoir about Texas as I knew it over the last forty-odd years, Guy Clark's lyrics have been a constant refrain. For newcomers to the state who express curiosity about the nature of the beast, I suggest they buy a Guy Clark album and listen up. "Texas Cooking" would be a good starting point.


Texas is thought by some to be a rogue state, populated by overblown and oversized juvenile delinquents. Like any myth, this view has some core support. An old friend, a union lawyer like myself, had his own peculiar slant on Texans. He lived most of his life in states adjoining Texas, notably Arkansas, Louisiana, and New Mexico. He concluded that the people of those states basically despise Texas and Texans, but in his view the most infuriating thing about this phenomenon is that Texans seem to know of this dislike and simply "don't give a shit." Although Texans of my generation may not give a shit about what the world thinks about them, the state is too large and too powerful to be written off. Texas's population now exceeds that of New York; three of its cities—Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio—are among the top ten largest in population in the country; and the state's economy is larger than that of many nations. Texas politicians, ranging from Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson to the somewhat paler variety of recent years, cut a wide swath during the last half of the twentieth century. Furthermore, at this point we may have in store the foundation of a new political dynasty by those Connecticut Yankees, the Bush family. Since they seem to have adopted the state, I assume the state should reciprocate and declare them all Texans. Nevertheless, their claims to be true Texans would be immeasurably enhanced if they would spend July and August in the state instead of in the cool climes of the Maine coast. All of this is simply to say that it is worthwhile to try to understand the state, or state of mind, of Texas.


Two particular Texas news stories have stuck in my head over the years. The first appeared when I was in Washington with the Civil Rights Commission in 1961. Lyndon Johnson had taken some eastern reporters on a Texas tour of his ranch and the surrounding Hill Country. There was a breathless account in, I believe, the Washington Post of a car trip with Vice President Johnson driving, drinking beer, and speeding through the countryside to the terror of the reporter. When I read the story, I thought, "So what?" From my experience, most of the weekend drivers in the Texas Hill Country were doing the same thing: drinking beer, enjoying the countryside, and having a good time, shocking as it might be to the rest of the country. "A six-pack to go" was almost a ritual as one got ready to hit the Texas highway.


The second story, of more recent origin, concerned the Branch Davidian standoff in my hometown of Waco. An enterprising New York Times story sought to explore the extent of gun ownership among Wacoans by interviewing a high school friend of mine who owned a gun store. Leo Bradshaw described the level of armament along these lines: every household in Waco probably had at least a shotgun, a deer rifle, a .22 rifle, and some type of pistol, primarily because Wacoans enjoyed guns and hunting. Leo explained that his typical customers were interested in a few more firearms; most of them would have several shotguns, two or three rifles, and an assortment of handguns. They'd grown up that way and never saw any reason to change. Leo's version seemed to me to be exactly right; I had grown up in such a household, as had most of my friends, and found nothing shocking in the account. It struck me at the time, however, that the typical reader of the Times might find the account a little alarming. In discussing this project with a young relative who lives in New York, I mentioned Leo's story and opined that I felt the rest of the country was interested in Texas. He responded that he felt it more accurate to say they were fearful of the state and its residents.


Sometime in the 1970s, Congress was considering legislation to declare a portion of the Rio Grande a wild and scenic river. The river forms a 750-mile border between Texas and Mexico and traverses some of the nation's most desolate terrain. Joe Lelyveld of the New York Times came out to do a story, and a group of us Texas liberals took him on a five-day canoe trip down a remote section of the river known as the lower canyons.


The trip had the usual pleasures—fast water, good company, and long stretches of Chihuahua Desert scenery. Unfortunately for Lelyveld, he was in a canoe with Texas Land Commissioner Bob Armstrong, better known for his charm and intelligence than his river skills. They suffered a major crash and some moments of fright before we dragged them from the river. Lelyveld recovered after a bit, though the canoe only partially did, as it had to complete the trip festooned with duct tape, the canoeist's solution to many river emergencies. Overall, it was a splendid trip, punctuated by an overstimulated evening in a natural hot spring in Mexico where everyone stripped off their clothes and went native. Lelyveld's Times article concluded that it made little difference what Congress decreed, both the people and the river were wild and scenic.


So it may still be in Texas, but the dissent on the left seems terribly truncated. Before my energy is lost, I want to write about the players and the movements, as I saw them, that sought to make the state more tolerant and more tolerable. Throughout the last half-century in Texas a semipermanent rump convention has hounded the Texas establishment, an effort that met with occasional success but was mainly ordained for frustration. Out of these efforts, however, grew a colorful cast of personalities spread across the civil rights movement, organized labor, the rise of Hispanic political activism, and the plain old kamikaze liberals of the state. Some of these activists had their moments; most did not, but their existence was and is important to an understanding of the current state of the State.


It was my good fortune to carouse with, march with, and play politics with a great band of free spirits who sought to make a change in the state. There was an old adage around the Texas legislature that described the zeitgeist of the times and was contained in this advice given by the dean of the Texas legislature to freshmen legislators: "Remember, vote with the conservatives and party with the liberals." So whether or not we won many victories, we were pretty clearly where the action was to be found.


The names of many people crop up in the pages that follow. Most will be unfamiliar to the reader, but their names appear because it seemed to me they were part of the account and, probably, because I love them. They played their roles, large or small, in the movement for change in Texas. They are referred to here with the best shorthand identification I could provide. So open up your heart to these political junkies, writers, teachers, lawyers, union activists, scofflaws, and bons vivants.




“[David Richards is] one of the best civil-rights lawyers and one of the best all-purpose battlers for justice this state has ever produced. . . . One man/one vote, school desegregation, freedom of speech, the list of cases with David Richards’s name on them as attorney for those getting shafted by unfair and unconstitutional laws goes on and on. So many of them seem self-evident by now. The shame of legal segregation is so clear to us at this point, we forget when it was worth a person’s life to work to change it.”
Molly Ivins, Fort Worth Star-Telegram


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