j j ti , v 11L. r r u During these years, Judge James Sewell, in his march from state legislator to county judge to district judge, while he was becoming a statewide leader at the same time, and often mentioned for the governorship, had built a solid political base in his home county of Navarro with that same thoroughness with which he organized the fight for the gas tax gathering bill. His associate, confidante, co-worker, close friend, and newspaperman, Claude Johnson, described it this way, in a letter to me: “We Democrats in Navarro County, under Jim’s leadership, put together a typical FDR coalition. Organized labor, the black leadership from old Ward I, the less affluent older people in Ward II, the middle class loyal party people in Wards III and IV, joined hands to build the Democratic victories we had. But it took a lot of hard work, beating the bushes, and grass roots organization. “My, my, Miss Davis, what a beautiful red dress you are wearing today.” Many an astonished new secretary was heard to whisper to friends that she didn’t believe that man was blind. He did the same with delegates from over the state at conventions: tipped as to their appearance, he might say, as a delegate approached, “Why, Joe Brown, you sure are dressed up for this convention; that blue tie sure does go pretty with that new grey suit.” Many a delegate was left wondering. Jim Sewell turned his blindness into a fun thing, to the chuckling amusement of himself and friends. People did not crowd around Jim Sewell to do him a kindness because he was blind; they crowded around him because he was leadership, he was ideas, he was full of wit, and by making his blindness a cause of bewilderment to others, he removed all thought of it being a friend to all the blacks of Navarro County, aiding them in every way he could. Bill Kiels said: “At one time, he was their only friend.” A black leader of Corsicana, Mrs. A. W. Hines, said: “We all loved the judgehe made a great difference in our liveswe loved him for his goodnesswe trusted himhe never let us down.” . The Carter victory in Navarro County, and in the nation, lifted Tiger Jim’s spirits. He told me he was going to get active in politics again. He became jubilantthe old fire of fight came back. Friends were giving him a dance in celebration in Ennis the night of November 13, 1976. He invited Kathleen Voigt to come up from San Antonio. She came; he was reliving the fights of the ’50s. Jim Sewell loved to dance, but he never enjoyed one more than the dance at Ennis on Saturday, November 13. “It was this same coalition that put Jim Sewell into the district judge’s chair. I was privileged to be a part of that interesting, exciting race. . . . “Of course, you realize how loyal Jim was to you; but let me further emphasize this, because I personally know that Jim Sewell went far beyond what most campaign chairmen would even think of doing for their candidates. . . .” Jim Sewell represented integrity on the bench. No political quarrel ever crossed the threshold of his judicial chambers. Lesser men may not understand how it could be so, but Jim Sewell had character and represented character, whether in a precinct or national convention or as a court in chanceryhe was every man’s conscience, the epitome of what the good citizen should represent in his work for reform as a private citizen; the personification of the highest judicial ethics when the robes of justice so becomingly rested on his shoulders. With all of his courage and sterling character, Judge Sewell was never arrogant or ill-mannered. He wore a half smile and had a sense of wit and humor that would spring up hour after hour. His sense of hearing was the keenest I have ever known in any man. In the Legislature, he would hear footsteps approaching, hurriedly whisper to an aide, “Who is it, what are they like?” The aide: “Miss Davis, from Galveston, wearing a pretty new red dress,” and Jim was out of his chair like a bolt as she approached, facing directly toward her and saying, a handicap to himself. He outsmarted his handicaphe turned it into an asset by his high intelligence. Through the years, Jim Sewell’s helpmate and working companion who drove the car for him in his Navarro County campaigns, was his beloved wife, Janet Hoover. They were married in the 1940’s on his return from military service and hospitals. Their two sons carry their family names, Jay Hoover Sewell and James Carroll Sewell Jr. Then that ill fortune which all families dread, came upon them. Janet fell ill. She could not drive the car for him in his race for re-election to the judgeship in 1972. He lost by 200 votes. Janet’s illness worsened and lingeredshe passed away in 1975. Jim had suffered enough illness himself to have felled a less stout-hearted man long ago. He survived a ruptured aorta in what doctors said was a million-to-one chance. One lung was cancerous; it was removed in 1975. He recovered. In 1976, Jim filed as a Carter delegate and was elected in May. It seemed to revive him in mind and body; he went to both state Democratic conventions and to the National Convention in New York, becoming more animated by the month. Managing Carter’s campaign in Navarro County, he carried it two-toone, with one black precinct voting 513 to 9 for Carter. The blacks had a special place in their hearts for Jim Sewell. He knew the heartaches of the handicapped and was Diana Sperberg They were his friends, in his age group, and the musicians played the music of their youthful era. Jim danced them all, fox trots, waltzes, polkas; “San Antonio Rose,” “Beer Barrel Polka,” “Sleepy Time Gal,” “Yellow Rose of Texas,” his spirits rising with each dance. Then as he danced with Kathleen Voigt to the music of “All of Me” in high spirits, his head sank, and then he fell to the floor. The doctors said the massive heart attack had brought instant death. It was Tuesday before families and friends could gather in for the final goodby. The -black lady who had served Judge Sewell at the club, Mrs. Alice Beans, went to the funeral home every morning, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, “to see him and tell him goodby.” After the ambulance left Ennis, they gathered up his articles to take home to his sons. On his top coat and hat lay the silver-headed cane which he had so proudly held before so many rallies in Texas, to stiffen the resolve of the loyal progressive forces, always reading in a slow resolute voice, the Latin engraving first, then its English translation: “Illigitima Non Carborundum.” Don’t let the bastards grind you down. They never succeeded in grinding Tiger Jim Sewell down. 1=1 Ralph Yarborough, who represented Texas in the United States Senate from 1957 to 1971, now practices law in Austin. January 28, 1977 23
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