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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 486

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This is the grave of Ralph Yarborough.

Born in 1903 in Chandler, Texas, Yarborough received an appointment to West Point, but dropped out, deciding to go into teaching instead. He transferred to Sam Houston State and then to the University of Texas. Deciding against teaching, he went for a law degree at UT instead, finishing it in 1927. He went out to El Paso to practice and then was hired as an assistant attorney general by the state in 1931. Yarborough became an expert in oil law, with a specialty in suing the oil companies who cheated on their taxes and violated production limits. With Texas having a strong populist streak, this sort of taking on big companies had a lot of appeal to the public at large and it made him popular statewide. When his mentor, James Allred, became governor, he appointed Yarborough as a judge in Travis County. Yarborough had political ambitions of his own by this time, but his first stab at public office went poorly. He finished third in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor in 1938.

Since Yarborough had a little bit of military experience from his brief time at West Point, he was a wanted commodity in World War II. He joined the army as an officer and rose all the way to the rank of lieutenant colonel by the end of the war. A pretty strong liberal, he wanted to take his values into public office again. But he had enemies, especially the governor, Allan Shivers, who was of the John Nance Garner school of revanchist Texas conservatism. Shivers directly intervened in the 1952 state attorney general race, ensuring that Yarborough could not win. Infuriated, Yarborough decided to run for governor against Shivers. He had allies too–unions hated Shivers. He denounced Shivers for endorsing Eisenhower instead of Stevenson and for fraud. He didn’t win in his 1952 or 1954 bids (Texas still had 2-year terms), but he came close in 1954 and probably only lost because Shivers race-baited him after the Brown decision. Then in 1956, he ran again against Price Daniel, another conservative, and the race was almost certainly stolen from him through right-wing voter fraud. Still, Yarborough was a man on the rise.

Daniel was a senator at the time and so left the job. Yarborough then ran in the election to replace him in 1957. There was no run-off this time, so the conservative candidates split their votes and he won with 38 percent of the vote. The utterly loathsome redbaiter Martin Dies finished second with 30 percent and a Republican candidate took 23 percent.

Yarborough was an amazingly liberal man for a southern politician. He did not moderate his positions for reelection either. He refused to unite with the rest of southern Democrats to support segregation, rejecting the Southern Manifesto. He was a big supporter of environmental protection and expanding health care. He took it on to lead the fight to expand the G.I. Bill to soldiers who served after World War II. In 1958, he won the primary to serve a full term against a conservative candidate. He then was the leading politician in the campaign to create Padre Island National Seashore, under the auspices of the National Park Service, providing critical beach protection in an area that was already becoming an over-touristed party destination.

Yarborough could also be a difficult guy for a politician. He really hated the conservatives in the party. So when JFK visited Dallas on that terrible day in November 1963, he was furious that John Connally, who he despised, was in the car with Kennedy. Feeling slighted and seeing this as an endorsement of a terrible man (true enough), Yarborough refused to ride with Lyndon Johnson. Both Kennedy and Johnson were outraged and Kennedy basically told him that he was a dead man walking if he didn’t go with LBJ, so he caved. Yarborough later regretted all this because of what happened that day, but it’s a good window into how disgusted liberals were with Texas conservative Democrats.

In 1964, Yarborough faced a rising Republican named George Bush for the Senate. Bush ran an openly racist campaign against Yarborough, racebaiting him, calling him soft on segregation, and generally defending white rights. Bush’s later reputation as a moderate was always a gross joke. Connally was supporting Bush against his hated liberal rival, but Yarborough managed to hold Bush off. He remained a strong liberal in his second full term. He publicly criticized the war in Vietnam and introduced the first bill to bring bilingual education into American public schools. In 1968, he was a supporter of Bobby Kennedy and then Eugene McCarthy after the former’s assassination. He fell in line behind Humphrey of course, but Yarborough was definitely on the left end of the Democratic Party, and not only in Texas.

So, in 1970, Yarborough lost his primary campaign against a new right-wing Democrat, Lloyd Bentsen. The latter continued the racebaiting he faced throughout his career and also slammed the senator for opposing the war. There was lots of talk about scary urban riots and rampaging black people because of people like Yarborough. In 1972, he ran for Senate, but probably once again had a win stolen from him by his conservatives rivals, this time the impossibly named Barefoot Sanders.

In his later career, he served as a senior liberal Democrat in the state, a mentor to people such as Jim Hightower and Ann Richards. He died in 1996, at the age of 92.

Ralph Yarborough is buried in Texas State Cemetery, Austin, Texas.

If you would like this series to visit more senators that were in office in the late 1950s, when Yarborough was a rising star, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. 1958 was a great year for Democrats. Among those elected that year for the first time was Jennings Randolph, who is in Salem, West Virginia, and Eugene McCarthy, who is in Woodville, Virginia. In fact, I have an opportunity to extend a trip for a talk I am giving by a day in about a week and I am using grave money to make that happen. Gene McCarthy is on the agenda, so if you want to help me make that happen, please do! Previous posts in this series are archived here.


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