To anyone unfamiliar with theObserver, “Texas Left” might seem an oxymoron, or some grotesque creature hunted to near-extinction in the Piney Woods. Was it last sighted jaywalking across Guadalupe Street when hit by a Hummer? Maybe we can read it as the beginning of a phrase: Texas left … the Union. According to Carl H. Moneyhon, one of 14 scholars contributing to The Texas Left, the state turned left in the aftermath of the Civil War when Union loyalists deposed the secessionists who had seized their property and killed their companions. During Reconstruction, the only sustained period in which the right did not spread its wing across Texas, radical Republicans pushed for universal suffrage and public education. By the 1870s, the white oligarchy was securely back in power.
In his essay for this academic collection, Greg Cantrell provides an inspiring reminder that Texas populism has not always manifested itself in fractious crowds of creationists, birthers, tax rebels, right-to-lifers, gun-worshippers and immigrant-bashers. Founded in 1877, the Farmers Alliance fought exploitative pricing through collective action and agricultural cooperatives. The People’s Party, founded in 1891, advocated a graduated income tax, women’s suffrage, secret ballots and direct election of senators. So alien was the Reagan doctrine, “government is the problem,” that the party favored public ownership of railroads. “I have never been frightened by that scarecrow, strong government,” declared Texas Populist Charles Jenkins in 1894. “I believe in a government strong enough to protect the lives, liberty and property of its citizens.”
After gubernatorial candidate Jerome Kearby captured 44 percent of the vote in 1896, the People’s Party faded away. Within a decade, the Socialist Party was drawing more votes than the Republicans, but not enough to keep the governor’s mansion free from a succession of reactionary residents. Despite successful struggles for safety codes, minimum wages, accident compensation and child-labor laws, George Norris Green and Michael R. Botson Jr. contend that 1920 “turned out to be labor’s high-water mark.” Anti-union animosity soon turned Texas into a “right-to-work” state. Jim Crow continued flapping more than a decade after Brown v. Board of Education, and Latinos still lack opportunities commensurate with their numbers. Though Texas Left contributor Patrick Cox believes that “Texas evinced a more moderate—or at least more diverse—identity than in the rest of the South.”
Texas Left includes the women’s movement, but nothing about gays and lesbians, American Indians or environmental activists. It discusses the NAACP and LULAC, but omits the ACLU. Molly Ivins, Barbara Jordan and Ralph Yarborough receive at least passing mention, but other icons of the left like Sissy Farenthold and John Henry Faulk are missing. A comprehensive account of the Texas left would demand many more pages. That’s small consolation to the beleaguered left in Texas today.
Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio.