A Life Worth Living

Mrs. R.D. Randolph and Texas Liberal Politics.

We have too few great persons among us on earth to lose their examples when they die. Among the desecrations of the public interest that the ostensibly liberal Ann Richards committed (along, say, with her appointment of right-winger Robert Krueger to the U.S. Senate from Texas while she was also helping turn Texas Democratic politics into a mortuary, and her going to work as a shill for the tobacco companies), was her and her acolytes’ studied omission, from their therefore forgettable literary compendium of notable Texas women, of the late Mrs. R. D. Frankie Randolph of Camden and Houston. That omission – which I can only explain by envy and the combative contempt which the compromised use against the principled actors on the stage of life – was like compiling a list of great women in the United States but omitting Eleanor Roosevelt.

On February 29, I was among those who had the honor of welcoming the ninety-year-old “Granny D,” Ms. Doris Haddock, to the steps of the national Capitol at the end of her noble, heroic, and engeniused 3,200-mile walk from California to Washington, D.C., for campaign finance reform. After considerable meditation about Mrs. Randolph I said, to the several thousand assembled before us to celebrate Ms. Haddock:

Walking from California to Washington, Doris Haddock has walked into our hearts and she has walked into history.

Walking to Washington for democracy, she has joined the pantheon of great American women.

We welcome Ms. Haddock today into the company of Margaret Fuller, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mother Jones, Jeannette Rankin, Dorothy Day, Frankie Randolph, Rosa Parks, Elizabeth MacAllister, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

To call her “Granny D” is okay for the press, and is fun for all of us. But from this day forward let us know Doris Haddock by her correct name.

The point is not that she’s a great woman. The point is she is a great person. A great leader of the people. I propose that, as an honorary matter, as far as we can do it, we declare her today the first woman President of the United States.

Living on Social Security and a small income, leaving nothing to her children, she decided to leave them democracy.

What I was meditating about, before including Mrs. Randolph in my suggested draft of that pantheon, was the fact that most people outside Texas did not know about her; her comparative greatness as a leader of the people among this company; and whether my love and admiration of her, which burn in me twenty-seven years after her death, might misguide me to include her. On the second and third questions, I concluded that objectively, to the extent that objectivity has to do with our enthusiasms that express our whole best selves, she is in their company. On the first, I saw that her unknownness in the country was not a reason not to include her, but the contrary.

Now Ann Fears Crawford (co-author of a book on John Connally; her biography of Barbara Jordan for middle-school children will also be released this year) has produced a competent and useful short biography of Mrs. Randolph. (Mrs. Randolph was always addressed as “Mrs. Randolph” except by her friends, and I continue to call her that here.) Crawford’s Frankie, in the major key, is a surety against Mrs. Randolph being forgotten, should those of us who experienced close by her personal power and the force of her character fail to declare our knowledge of her singularity in history before we in our turns pass on. Here also, in a minor key, is that Richards group’s first comeuppance for their notable display of unforgettable pettiness. Crawford gives us many of the basic facts, along with a few inevitable depreciations from her lessers, about the woman from the uppermost levels of the aristocracy who used her wealth and worked to the marrow of her bones for power for and among the people, and whom accordingly they trusted. Had she been a general, as in Texas politics she was, thousands would have died following her.

One of the heirs to the Carter lumber fortune in East Texas, Mrs. Randolph was very rich and it was old money. She used that money and her tireless personal work to help found The Texas Observer, of which she was the publisher until the early Sixties; to organize the precincts in the huge city of Houston for uncompromising liberal values within the Democratic Party, which was then in the hands of virtually Republican reactionaries and bigots in unholy liaison with national Democratic party-loyalist bosses Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson; to silently but openly integrate the meetings, events, and lives of the then very powerful Harris County Democrats, the organization that she more than any one person brought into being; to help liberal-left Democrats in San Antonio, Dallas, Fort Worth, Corpus Christi, and El Paso, and in the boondocks to the extent they would and could, do these same things; and to elect liberal and populist Democratic candidates (such as the wise and visionary Bob Eckhardt to the Texas Legislature and the liberal-populist judge, Ralph Yarborough, to the U.S. Senate from Texas). In 1956, over the all-out and bitter opposition of then national Senate Democratic Majority Leader Johnson, the state Democratic convention elected her the state’s Democratic national committeewoman. Her radical integrity, influence, and power and that of Senator Yarborough lay behind the ascension to the federal bench in Texas of William Wayne Justice in Tyler and Woodrow Seals in Houston. She never sought anything for herself, and when she spoke publicly, typically she just said, “Work in your precincts!” and sat down. Once she said of herself that in Harris County they said “the only word I know is ‘work.'” Had she lived a third of a century later and run for office, she could have become, and worthily, our first woman President.

Crawford quotes Mrs. Randolph as saying: “Liberalism to me means going forward instead of living in the past.” Creekmore Fath of Austin was present when her husband Deke said in her presence (having known Deke, I would say almost certainly in jest) that he didn’t know what he was going to do about Frankie as she was spending “all the goddamn money on politics.” She looked over at Deke and responded, “Would you rather I go back to collecting antiques?” She told Willie Morris, editor of the Observer in the early Sixties, “Some old ladies collect antiques…. I want to make the place we live in better.” Though she thought Eckhardt a bit of a dandy she stood by him totally because, as she would say, “He has integrity.” Though she would chafe when Yarborough sounded in public like a politician she stood by him totally because, as she would say about him, too, “He has integrity.”

But man, was she tough. Crawford muses credibly that one of the liberal state representatives from Houston whom Mrs. Randolph had helped elect, Dean Johnston, must have been astounded to receive a telegram from her which read: “Don’t do anything until tomorrow. You have made enough mistakes today.” One of her workaday sidekicks in Texas politics, Billie Carr of Houston, complained once about conservatives who considered her a traitor for some reason, and Mrs. Randolph, a real “traitor to her class,” laughed and replied, “They hate me more than they do you.” For hypocritical or power-sucking Democrats she reserved her withering and open contempt. “Billie,” she said one day to Carr, “you’ll have to meet with ‘the gents.’… I’m tired of them.”

She had a special contempt for the wheeler-dealing, power-mongering, flat-out opposition to liberals as “the red-hots,” and the compromising with conservatives in which Senator Johnson had specialized since about 1948. When Johnson, the year after his 1955 heart attack, made his first (and very limp) run for President, she said to the press, “It is criminal of any person to run for office after having a major heart attack…. I am not a Lyndon Johnson person. I am not interested in electing another heart case President.” She confirmed to me, during those days, a story I had heard and asked her about, and which Crawford felicitously reports. Senator Johnson had asked Mrs. Randolph to come up to his hotel room. “Well, Mrs. Randolph,” he opened up the conversation, “what can I do for you?” Mrs. Randolph replied straight to his face, “Nothing.” Carr told Crawford that when, as Vice-President, Johnson called Mrs. Randolph on the telephone and greeted her by her first name, she boomed back at him, “Who gave you permission to call me Frankie?” When Johnson advocated “junking the forty-hour week” on behalf of a space race with the U.S.S.R., she publicly accused him of blaming workers for the U.S. failure to launch a missile before Russia did. When Johnson asked her to stop me from criticizing him in the Observer, holding fast to our agreement that the editor would have exclusive control of the editorial contents of the Observer, she told him to talk to me.

Crawford writes, about that agreement: “Her sponsorship of the Texas Observer alone would have won Randolph a place in the annals of Texas politics; but her allowing and encouraging the editors she hired to follow an independent course in the articles they chose to write and their writing itself was extraordinary. It won their lifelong respect and the respect of all those who work toward an independent journalism. The Observer remains a living testament to Randolph’s ideals and the practical way in which she put her money to work where it would do the most good.”

Eddie Ball, the Houston steelworker organizer, and Kathleen Voigt, the leader of the Bexar County Democrats in those years, imply in Crawford’s book, respectively, that Mrs. Randolph had “absolute power” over the Harris County Democrats and that she deceivingly faked out Ms. Voigt on the national committeewoman election in 1956, by making a deal with Ms. Voigt that they would support a third candidate, a close ally of Mrs. Randolph’s, the late Lillian Collier of Mumford, who then disappeared as a candidate as Mrs. Randolph swept to victory. Mrs. Randolph believed in democracy; Ball mistakes her influence for dictatorship. Maybe she and Lillian did double-cross Ms. Voigt – I feel a need to know more about this than Crawford relates – but the fact that Mrs. Randolph did become the committeewoman gave her that official base of strength as she led what was historically the most powerful progressive movement in Texas since the farmers’ populism of the nineteenth century.

Ann Fears Crawford closes her biography: “In the liberal-labor movement, Randolph was a lodestar, a person who drew people to her, training them and empowering them to work toward a common goal – pushing issues, electing solid Democrats who worked for the liberal agenda, and seeing that every person had equal access not only to political office but to social justice as well…. She not only talked about ending segregation, but avidly worked toward that goal…. Her money gained her access; her organizational talent ensured her place in history. She learned from political women – ‘Minnie Fish’ [Minnie Fisher Cunningham], Lillian Collier, Marion Storm, and other activists – what women could do, and what they should do, and went about doing it in her own way, in her own time…. She set the example and mentored women…. Frankie Randolph always stood by her convictions and fought the good fight. Hers was a life well worth living.”

Ronnie Dugger, founding editor of the Observer, is national co-chair of the Alliance for Democracy.

Ronnie Dugger was the founding editor of the Observer in 1954 and was its publisher until 1994. He has written biographies of Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, books about Hiroshima and universities, and countless articles in The Nation, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Atlantic, The New York Times, The Progressive, The Washington Post and other publications. Home again, living and writing in Austin, he received the George Polk career award in journalism in 2012.

You May Also Like:

Published at 12:00 am CST