The Capitol Dome

2017 Dome 54.1

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 51 of 67

became Travis County Deputy Sheriff at age 21 and was elected to the Texas Legislature in 1936 and as Travis County District Attorney in 1940. In 1948, when Lyndon John- son stepped aside from his House seat to make his successful bid for the Senate, Thornberry had his back- ing as his replacement. Thornberry won that year's Democratic primary and thereafter—the state of the Texas Republican Party being what it was at midcentury—ran unopposed in each of the next six congressional elections. Tomlin places Thornberry's devel- opment as a policymaker in the con- text of two opposed political cur- rents: postwar Washington's rising liberal moment, and the contrary, rightward movement experienced in Texas in the same years. A series of conservative governors, helped along by the conservative "Texas Regulars" faction of the state Dem- ocratic Party, oversaw a blue-to-red transition fueled by nouveau riche oil fortunes untethered from much sense of the social responsibility of wealth and by poisonous opposi- tion to Supreme Court civil rights rulings. Thornberry was swept up in the national current. Although in his early years in Congress he voted along traditional southern Demo- cratic lines in opposition to labor and civil rights interests, Thorn- berry made an abrupt about-face on the Civil Rights Act of 1957. After opposing the bill as introduced, he supported the revised version that won passage, thereby, notes Tomlin, "cementing his complete reversal on… civil rights legislation in gen- eral" (74). Thornberry was one of the few southerners to give early support to the Civil Rights Act of 1960, the year that "marked Thorn- berry's definitive break from the conservative coalition" (89). He became "the only southerner on the Rules Committee to regularly back the Kennedy administration" (110). At this juncture, the realities of the changing political winds in Texas kicked in. Sensing the shift in his constituency, Thornberry called in his chits with Democratic lead- ership, garnering himself "a good, steady job" (109) as federal judge for the western district of Texas in July 1963. His LBJ-powered rise proved meteoric: in June 1965 Johnson moved Thornberry up to a Fifth Circuit judgeship, and, in 1968, attempted to elevate him to the Supreme Court. That move was part of a gambit to place Johnson's long-time consigliere, Associate Jus- tice Abe Fortas, in the seat of retir- ing Chief Justice Earl Warren. The hope was that Thornberry's nomi- nation would placate conservatives opposed to Fortas. But the deal fell apart; Fortas withdrew his name from consideration; and Thornberry's opening never materialized. If Thornberry's initial conversion to the cause of midcentury American liberalism had been merely opportu- nistic—a decision to act as "a loyal lieutenant under Democratic leader- ship" (79)—his service on the fed- eral bench, as a judge with life ten- ure, showed it to have been lasting. In his Fifth Circuit rulings declaring state poll taxes and the exclusion of African Americans from jury ser- vice unconstitutional, Thornberry placed himself, in the words of the New York Times, at the "storm cen- ter of the fight over equal rights for the Negro" (137). Serving, as it did, the states of the old Confederacy, the Fifth Circuit was inundated by school desegregation cases, which it was called upon to decide with little Supreme Court guidance. Its liberal faction, Thornberry among them, broke ground in rulings that, in the opinion of Attorney General Ramsey Clark, "brought racial inte- gration to the Deep South a genera- tion sooner than the Supreme Court could have done it" (158). Tomlin maps this evolution in his grandfather's politics. The intriguing question remains: from what sources did this transformation spring? Clearly, commitments beyond those of Democratic Party loyalty were involved, but what were these? The question matters, since it was transfor- mations such as Thornberry's, experi- enced by multitudes of Americans— although few of them so importantly placed—that made enactment of the Great Society program possible. Tomlin's precis of his grandfather's career provides a map of these per- sonal transitions that will prove of use in further explorations that seek to locate their well-springs. BELL JULIAN CLEMENT writes about federal urban policy, especial- ly as it has developed in experiments in the Federal City. She teaches at The George Washington University. 50 THE CAPITOL DOME

Articles in this issue

Archives of this issue

view archives of The Capitol Dome - 2017 Dome 54.1