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Remembering Ralph Yarborough

By Tom Dodge, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – If a liberal is someone dedicated to human rights, racial equality, education, jobs, public health, and the environment, then Ralph W. Yarborough, United States Senator from Texas from 1957-1970 was a liberal non-pareil. He was the happiest of warriors, always believing, it is said, in humanity's innate goodness. Even when he criticized opponents his cherubic visage signaled that it was not personal. He was called "Smilin' Ralph" by both friend and foe.

He was born June 8, 1903, in the tiny East Texas town of Chandler in Henderson County. His centenary last year was overlooked except for a few townspeople who remembered his greatness. City Council member Don Copeland posted a birthday notice on Chandler's Main Street marquee. There's a plaque on the Yarborough family home there and the library has a permanent display of Yarborough information and memorabilia. All the old-timers there cherish his memory, especially in light of the country's prevailing cynicism today.

He was a World War II combat veteran and came home just about every Memorial Day to lead a veterans' fund-raiser at the cemetery, Mr. Copland said. "He was instrumental in getting loans and grants to help the town, like the water and sewer system, which we never would have gotten otherwise. I loved him," he went on. "But he was too honest to be a politician today."

He may have been too honest for his own time, too. He lost the first four state-wide elections he entered, one for attorney general in 1938 and three for governor - in 1952, 1954, and 1956.

After losing the governor's race to Senator Price Daniel in 1956, he ran a year later for Daniel's vacant senate seat and won. Until he lost to Lloyd Bentsen, Jr., in 1970, he had been a flag carrier in the Senate for the worker, the poor and the sick, the oppressed, the uneducated, and the hungry. He voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and with but two other Southerners voted for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1962, in order to cast his vote for a civil rights bill, he had to wrest himself from the formidable clutches of Strom Thurmond, who had bulldogged him to the Senate chambers floor to try keep him from voting.

His leadership brought about the Higher Education Act, Cold War G.I. Bill, Bilingual Education Act, Head Start, and the Endangered Species Act. He wrote the legislation that provided federal preserves at Padre Island, the Guadalupe Mountains, and the Big Thicket. He co-sponsored the bill that became Medicare.

He was an old-time golden-throated orator and a scholar, the best-read senator Texas has ever had, proclaimed author J. Frank Dobie. In support of the common person against the big shots, his rich East Texas inflections trilled and lilted from courthouse lawns, bandstands, meeting halls, truck and wagon beds of one county seat after another.

He defeated George Bush, Sr., in the senatorial race of 1964, a classic clash of blue nose versus blue collar, Yarborough said.

His idealism was not a benefit to him even in his day. He lost as many elections as he won. But his dedication to people-centered politics would make him totally unelectable and incomprehensible to today's cynical, win-at-any-cost voters trained from kindergarten that power equals virtue.


Tom Dodge is a writer from Midlothian.