When The Texas Observer Decided to Exist
Editor’s note: Sixty years ago today, on Dec. 13, 1954, The Texas Observer published its first issue. Back then the Observer was a weekly newspaper and cost $4 a year. The inaugural issue contained stories on the Red Scare then roiling state politics; a labor fight in Port Arthur; “inefficient schools” (how much has really changed?); and challenges to one-party rule in Laredo. Below is founding editor Ronnie Dugger’s account of how the Observer came to be.
Speaking last year to 70 or 80 loyal Texas Observer people during one of Molly Ivins’ Final Fridays in San Antonio at the home of Bob and JoAnne Comeaux, having been invited 59 years earlier to be the Observer’s founding editor, I told the little-known story of how and why, in the winter of 1954, the Observer decided to exist. Perhaps it should be in the record.
I was 24 then, a liberal. I had been editor of the student paper, the Daily Texan, at the University of Texas at Austin, and had written columns in the San Antonio Express for a year. Texas daily newspapers in the cities during those years were right-wing racist rotgut almost without exception. State politics was dominated by the conservative-controlled Democratic Party, running along like a tail-wagging puppy dog, well-fed and obedient, behind oil, banks, white racism and rampant Texas macho. Two years earlier, Adlai Stevenson had lost the presidency to Eisenhower. Our governor was Democrat Allan Shivers, and his segregationist McCarthyite Shivercrats were expected to bolt the Democratic Party for Eisenhower in 1956, as they did.
Texas, though! We’d had Sam Houston, Jim Hogg, Jimmy Allred, and we’d been the founding area for the great outburst of farmers’ populism in the last quarter of the 1800s. Sam Rayburn of Bonham was the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington and Lyndon Johnson of Johnson City was becoming the majority leader in the U.S. Senate. The liberal Democrats here in the state, led by Mrs. R.D. Randolph in Houston, Kathleen Voigt in San Antonio as well as Bob Eckhardt, Ralph Yarborough, Wayne Justice and Woodrow Seals, were revolting against bossism and taking over politics in cities, especially Houston and San Antonio, by intensive precinct organizing. Well, the loyal Democrats here (that is, loyal to the Democrats’ presidential nominees) also decided to start an effective weekly paper. We had already had the Texas Spectator, Hart Stilwell, Bob Eckhardt’s great cartoons, and now a group of the liberal leaders, meeting for the purpose over a weekend in a hotel in downtown in Austin, were going to buy out loyal Democrat Paul Holcomb’s State Observer and try further to make a real go of the fight for power in this historically powerful state.
I had become so disgusted with my country dominated by McCarthyism that the Monday after that weekend, I was going down to the Gulf to hitch a job with a shrimp boat crew and jump ship in Mexico, work my way back up to Texas, maybe write a novel about it. But Jimmy Strong, an East Texas lawyer, phoned me from the hotel downtown, told me they wanted me to be the editor, and would I come down. At a table with a few of them I realized, though she said little, that Mrs. Randolph, the phenomenal precinct leader in Houston and a lumber heiress to boot, seemed to be the power, and overnight I wrote her a long letter for the group listing pages of neglected stories and subjects I would try to get reported if I were the editor. Then, addressing the group downtown, maybe 50, 75 of them, I said that party organs were fine with me, I had nothing against them, but I would not care to work on one, and if they chose me I would have to have exclusive control of the editorial content. They could fire me, but I would control the content of the paper.
I thought they well might say no. Hell, I was going to Mexico. Bob Eckhardt, I believe it was (he was a CIO lawyer and natural-born political caricaturist then), told me somewhat later that in the discussion after I’d left their meeting, Mark Adams, a New Deal insider who would be our first printer, said, “If ever a rattlesnake rattled before he struck, Dugger did.” Mark told me later he hadn’t said that, so there that stands. In any case, the group got back to me (Strong again, I think), and they had decided. “OK, you’re hired, would you help raise the money and support?” I agreed. We had a deal.
I wrote a credo, a policy statement to go on the masthead, one of the most carefully worded things I have ever written, and gave it to the advisory committee they were forming. You may have read it, but since this became the deciding issue then, let me repeat it now:
“We will serve no group or party but will hew hard to the truth as we find it and the right as we see it.
“We are dedicated to the whole truth, to human values above all interests, to the rights of humankind as the foundation of democracy.
“We will take orders from none but our own conscience, and never will we overlook or misrepresent the truth to serve the interests of the powerful or cater to the ignoble in the human spirit.”
Dell Sackett, who was to be our first business manager, and I had been on the road around the state about six weeks, explaining the project, getting commitments. We were meeting with a small group in Dallas in front of a fire in a supporting couple’s front room one evening when there was a call for me from Bob Eckhardt. Those being the old days, I went into the hall and took it on the wall phone.
“Ronnie,” Bob said, “I’ve got something to tell you.” I can still hear his voice in my memory. A member of the founding advisory committee did not like two words in the credo, and the committee had voted to change “We will serve none but our own conscience” to “We will serve none but the newspaper’s conscience.”
That broke the deal, of course.
I replied at once, but I should not, in polite society, tell you exactly what I said. I said to Bob to please tell them to go copulate themselves. I did not venture to advise them how to manage that.
“Well, I understand how you feel, Ronnie,” Bob said, “but let me make a suggestion.”
“Why don’t you just go ahead and print it in your first issue the way you have it, and see what happens,” Bob said.
I believe he had thought this up beforehand. I turned it over in my mind for a minute or so and responded, “OK, Bob, I will do that.” We rang off.
I put out my first issue that December. In our front-page subtitle we called ourselves “independent liberal,” and the credo appeared as I had written it. In the ensuing weeks, then months, I did not hear a word about the credo. There it is in the masthead 60 years later.
Partly I guess accidentally, and after that to a decisive extent silently, we decided this would be not only a political journal, but also tough and honest journalism. That’s how the Observer decided to exist, how we founded it, Mrs. Randolph and her fine banker husband who I never called anything but Mr. Randolph, Jimmy Strong, Bob and Orissa Eckhardt, Franklin and Huldah Jones Sr., Mark Adams, J.R. Parten, Walter and Helen Hall, Lillian Collier, Minnie Fisher Cunningham, Percy Strauss, my wife Jean, me and then many thousands of others. The founding group, then Mrs. Randolph as the publisher, kept their deal with me, and during my three decades and three years as the publisher, through 1994, I made the same careful deal with every one of the editors I hired.
I have always believed and still do that Observer readers are not just subscribers; together we are the rolling, ongoing community of liberal and left, radical, some centrist and conservative, decent people, still moored in this still oligarchical political hellhole, beautiful Texas. After Texas gave the nation Vietnam and the second Iraq War, we can hardly say we have “won,” but I believe that all of us together have invented and sustained one model of a new societal form where the journalists work hard and free and control the paper and the owners hire and fire the editor. Just beyond this, I hope, is the next permutation, wherein the owners are the journalists in a cooperative or a worker-owned business and the journalist-owners govern themselves together. In another lifetime, perhaps, in the ongoing movement we are of.