On May 1957, one of the ugliest times in Texas history, the Legislature was debating a long series of bills designed to reinforce the legal structure of segregation. Henry B. Gonzalez opposed the bills for 22 hours straight–still the record in the Texas Senate. Ronnie Dugger of The Texas Observer reported:
“A tall Latin man in a light blue suit and white shoes and yellow handkerchief was pacing around his desk on the Senate floor. It was eight o’clock in the morning. An old Negro was brushing off the soft senatorial carpet in front of the president’s rostrum. Up in the gallery, a white man stood with his back to the chamber, studying a panel of pictures of an earlier Senate. The Latin man was orating and gesturing in a full flood of energy, not like a man who had been talking to almost nobody for three hours and had another day and night to go.
“‘Why did they name Gonzalez Gonzalez, if the name wasn’t honored in Texas at the time?’ he asked. ‘Why did they honor Garza along with Burnet? My own forebears in Mexico bore arms against Santa Anna. There were three revolutions against Santa Anna–Texas was only one of its manifestations. Did you know that Negroes helped settle Texas? That a Negro died at the Alamo?’
“The angry, crystal-voiced man stopped in his pacing and raised his arms to plead, ‘I seek to register the plaintive cry, the hurt feelings, the silent, the dumb protest of the inarticulate. …’
“For 22 hours he held the floor, an eloquent, an erudite, a genuine and a passionate man; and any whose minds he didn’t enter had slammed the doors and buried the keys.”
What you have to remember about a 22-hour filibuster, still the record, is that it requires more than enormous physical stamina. You have to have 22 hours worth of knowledge in your head–and having heard many a shorter filibuster, I can testify that many people do not. They just don’t know enough to talk that long, not to mention talking that long at such a level of historical, constitutional, legal and judicial knowledge, in addition to the extraordinary passion for justice that animated the whole. Henry B. read widely his whole life and spoke four languages. That he was dismissed on the floor of the Texas Senate as a “lousy Mexican” was just a tiny part of the contempt and hatred that he experienced because of his skin color. Henry B.’s filibuster finally killed all but two or three of the whole hateful package.
When someone like Henry B. dies, as Gonzalez did Tuesday, I sometimes think those platitudinous tributes “fearless champion of the underdog, honorable and principled” actually get in the way of those who did not know the late, sainted whoever. Henry B. was not a saint. He was a boxer. When he was 70 years old, some fool called him a communist, so Henry B. decked the guy. At the time, Henry B. claimed that although he was provoked, he had still acted in a restrained manner. “If I had acted out of passion, that fellow would still not be able to eat chalupas.”
Henry B. once observed of a long-ago bit of political correctness that someone calling himself “Latin American” was just “a Mexican with a poll tax.” As high-flown as his rhetoric could be–Sen. Phil Gramm once called him “the old blowhard”–it was often laced with mordant humor. He was always being outspent in his campaigns and would tell his supporters, “You can drink his beer and eat his tamales, but when you go the polls, vote for Gonzalez!” As you look back on his career, what’s astonishing is how principled, consistent and right he was. In his 37 years in Congress, he lived entirely on his salary and refused to take contributions from the special interests affected by the committees on which he served, including all his years as chairman of the Banking Committee.
The man never sold out to anyone, from his early service on the San Antonio City Council–where he fought to desegregate public swimming pools–to the great stand on the hate bills in the Senate, through the 37 years in Congress. He was right about deregulating the S&Ls–he was one of a handful who opposed that lobby-engineered disaster. He was right about Mexican banks not being strong enough for NAFTA. He was right about Ronald Reagan’s HUD secretary’s misusing his office. Because Henry B. had long been a champion of public housing, he saw the department being twisted. It took Henry C.–i.e., Cisneros–several years to untwist it. Henry B. told us how often PAC money turned our own representatives against us. He warned us about the concentration of power in ever-larger banks.
Henry B. was a powerful man for a long time. But he never forgot where he came from and what it was like. His best friend’s mother went blind from hand-sewing baby clothes at 5 cents a piece. Dugger told a story of him that I cannot forget. Henry B.’s parents were from Durango, but he was born in San Antonio. He started haunting the public library when he was 8, but when he started junior high, his accent was still so thick that they made fun of him. He had read that Demosthenes of Athens developed his oratory by shouting at the sea with pebbles in his mouth. So Henry B. would read Thomas Carlyle aloud with pebbles in his mouth “until Poppa thought I was nuts and told me to stop.”
He had a friend correct his enunciation as he read Robert Louis Stevenson. And on some nights, his sisters and brothers would creep up to his bedroom window and watch him declaiming to a mirror, and then they would run off giggling.
Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her book with Louis Dubose (Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush) has been re-issued in a new edition. You may write to her at [email protected]