González, Henry B.: 1916-2000: Congressman
Henry B. González: 1916-2000: Congressman
Henry Barbosa González of Texas served 18 consecutive terms as a U.S. Representative in Congress, from 1961 to 1998. Known as a maverick, he commanded the respect of both his friends and his enemies. His early stance against segregation made him a hero among first generation Mexican-Americans. In 1957, when he was a Texas State Senator, he filibustered for more than 22 hours to protest pending legislation that would limit the scope of desegregation.
González was born in San Antonio, Texas, on May 3, 1916. His parents, Leonides and Genoveva (Barbosa) González, had fled Mexico in 1911 to escape the violence of the revolution. Leonides had previously been the mayor of the town of Mapimi in the Mexican state of Durango, as well as a successful businessman. He became a journalist in San Antonio, eventually becoming the managing editor of La Prensa, at that time the only Spanish-language newspaper in the United States. The young González helped support his family, which included five other siblings, by taking on odd jobs when he was in elementary school.
Worked to Improve the West Side
Despite economic difficulties that plagued many of the residents of predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods on San Antonio's west side, González grew up in a happy and robust household in which lively discussions on politics and philosophy were commonplace. Although González's home life was a source of comfort and stability, on the streets of San Antonio he encountered prejudice very similar to that of African Americans in the South, including racial slurs and exclusion from "white only" facilities such as the local swimming pools and restaurants. As a child González, who could trace his Mexican ancestors back to 1561, expected that his family, who retained Spanish as their household language, would eventually return to their homeland. However, as he grew into adulthood, González stopped looking toward Mexico and proclaimed his full rights as a U.S. citizen. As a result, he became one of the first pioneers of Mexican-American assimilation.
After graduating from Jefferson High School, González attended San Antonio Junior College (now San Antonio Community College), earning an associate's degree in 1937. He then studied engineering at the University of Texas in Austin until financial constraints forced his withdrawal. Upon returning to San Antonio, González enrolled in St. Mary's University, earning a bachelor's degree and, in 1943, a law degree. During his years at St. Mary's, González met and married Bertha Cuellar, with whom he had eight children. To help pay for his schooling he took up boxing, eventually becoming a Golden Gloves champion. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, González served the war effort as a civilian cable and radio censor for military intelligence. After graduating from law school, he found work as an assistant chief juvenile probation officer in San Antonio. In 1946 he was promoted to chief probation officer in San Antonio, where he was responsible for improving juvenile probation services within the Bexar County Juvenile Court system. However, in the same year González abruptly resigned from his position when he was told he would not be allowed to hire an African-American staff member.
At a Glance . . .
Born Enrique Barbosa González on May 3, 1916, in San Antonio, Texas; son of Leonides (a former mayor, businessman, journalist and editor) and Genoveva (Barbosa) Gonzales; married Bertha Cuellar; eight children. Education: San Antonio Jr. College, A.A., 1937; St. Mary's University, B.A., and law degree, 1943. Politics: Democrat.
Career: Probation officer, Bexar County Juvenile Court, prior to 1946; Spanish-English translation business, 1947-51; Councilman, City of San Antonio, 1953-56; Texas State Senator, 1956-61; Representative, U.S. Congress, 1961-98.
For the remainder of the 1950s González held several different jobs. In 1947 he served as an executive secretary for the Pan American Progressive Association, and from 1947 to 1951 he helped operate his father's Spanish-English translation business. He also wrote articles for bicultural publications and served as the director of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. In 1950 he became the deputy family relocation director for the Housing Authority in San Antonio. His job was to find alternative housing for families who became displaced when their slum neighborhoods were demolished.
Entered Public Office
In 1950 González made his first bid for public office by running for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives. Although he lost the election, three years later he successfully ran for a seat on the San Antonio City Council. As a councilman, González pushed for fair and equal treatment of the city's Hispanic population and succeeded in pushing through ordinances that desegregated the city's public facilities.
In 1956 González was elected as a state senator, becoming the first person of Mexican descent in the previous one hundred years to be elected to the Texas Senate. In a day when racism was openly expressed and discrimination openly employed, his victory was not easy. The election results were re-counted three times, and the margin of his ultimate victory was only 309 votes.
When he first arrived in Austin to serve his term, González encountered suspicion and a spirit of racial prejudice among many of his colleagues, and was often referred to as "that Mexican." Despite his less-than-welcome presence, González quickly made it clear that he was prepared to fight for his ideals. He called for an end to racial discrimination and became an outspoken proponent of liberal causes such as improved housing services and slum clearance, and was a strong opponent of the proposed state sales tax.
Filibustered on Segregation Legislation
González became an early champion of the civil rights movement and a hero in the eyes of many Mexican Americans. He stood up against the passage of ten bills that were written to circumvent the federal mandate issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, which called for the desegregation of all public schools. He made national headlines in 1957 when he spearheaded the longest filibuster in the history of the Texas legislature, undertaken in an effort to prevent passage of the segregation bills. The bills included measures that would allow parents who disagreed with desegregation to withdraw their children from school.
The filibuster was initiated by Senator Abraham "Chick" Kazen of Laredo, who spoke for twelve hours before yielding the floor to González after midnight. González, decked out in a light-blue suit, white shoes, and matching yellow tie and handkerchief, spoke for a night, a day, and into the second night, a total of twenty-two hours and two minutes, without stopping for a break. According to Texas Monthly, González began his marathon speech by stating, "I seek to register the plaintive cry, the hurt feelings, the silent, the dumb protest of the inarticulate." To answer the bills' proponents, who argued that the legislation was a necessity, González raged, "Necessity is the creed of slaves and the argument of tyrants!" Finally at 1:45 a.m. into his second night on the floor, opponents agreed to withdraw four of the ten bills if Gonzales would just sit down and stop talking. Subsequently nine of the ten bills were withdrawn or declared unconstitutional.
Became a U.S. Representative in Congress
In 1958, riding on his increasing fame in San Antonio and throughout Texas, González made an unsuccessful bid for the governorship of Texas. In 1961 he lost a special election to fill a seat in the U.S. Senate, left vacant when Lyndon B. Johnson was elected vice president. However, in the same year he ran in another special election to fill a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, left open when Congressman Paul Kilday accepted a military court appointment. Endorsed by Texas Governor Price Daniel as well as President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Johnson, González won the election and began a 37-year career as a member of the U.S. Congress. He was the first Hispanic from Texas to gain a seat in the House of Representatives.
Throughout a long career that spanned 18 consecutive terms, González never faced a Democratic opponent in a primary and only faced a Republican opponent in the general election six times. The retention of his seat was nearly guaranteed, and he usually garnered at least 80 percent of the vote. Always staunchly independent, González never ran on a Hispanic platform, declaring that he represented all the people in his district and particularly wanted to be a voice for the poor and the underprivileged, regardless of race. On the day when González raised his right hand as he was sworn into national office for the first time, in his left hand he clutched the draft of a bill that would put an end to poll taxes, which discriminated against the poor and minorities. Because he refused to adopt a more aggressively focused Mexican-American agenda, his membership in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus was revoked.
During the 1960s González forged a reputation as an outspoken, fiercely independent voice in Congress, often taking unpopular positions. In 1962 he succeeded in getting legislation to abolish the poll tax passed in the House. In 1963 he refused to support additional funding for the House Committee on Un-American Activities, because he believed it received an unfair proportion of money when compared to other House committees. In the same year he spoke passionately against proposed legislation that would clear the way for large fruit and vegetable growers to exploit migrant farm workers. The following year he was one of the few congressional members from the South who supported the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In 1977 González was appointed as the chairman of the House Assassinations Committee that was charged with investigating the murders of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. However, after coming into conflict with the chief investigator, González quit the committee. As a member of the House Small Business Committee during the 1970s, González played a key role in the reform and improvement of small business practices and regulations. He also took a stance against the expansion of nuclear power facilities. In 1981 González became the chairman of the Subcommittee on Housing and Community Development and battled President Ronald Reagan, who had proposed cuts in funding to public housing projects.
González served as chairman of the important House Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs Committee from 1988 until 1995 when the Republicans took control of the House. During his tenure at the helm of Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs, he pushed through legislation dealing with such issues as bank fraud, money laundering, flood insurance reform, housing initiatives, and loosening credit restrictions for small businesses. González also predicted the collapse of the savings and loan industry in 1989 and was subsequently instrumental in drafting bailout and reform legislation.
After being displaced from his prestigious position as committee chairman after the 1994 elections, González, by then in his late seventies, seemed to lose some of his vitality. He was also burdened by the illness of his wife, which cut short the time he spent on Capitol Hill. In late 1997 he announced his retirement from Congress due to failing health caused by an infection that had affected his heart. He did not step down immediately, however. He returned to San Antonio until September of 1998, after which he returned to Washington to serve out the last weeks of his term. His son Charlie took over the remainder of the term and was subsequently re-elected to his father's seat in Congress. The elder González died on November 29, 2000.
On the west side of San Antonio, many businesses and restaurants still proudly display pictures of González, known to most simply as "Henry B." To those who supported him, González was a man of integrity, honor, courage, and strength, who cared for the people he represented. He battled and broke down racial barriers, allowing other Hispanics to follow a path made easier by González. Andy Hernandez, a political theorist from St. Mary's University, told the Austin Chronicle, "He was one of the very first extraordinary leaders of the Mexican-American generation who battled segregation. He himself broke through all the barriers."
Called a "crackpot" and "unbalanced" by his detractors for his numerous tirades against real and imaginary enemies, González, whether loved or despised, demanded respect. His emotional disposition made headlines twice during his tenure. In 1963 in the House chambers, Texas Republican Ed Foreman called González a "pinko," and González responded by punching Foreman. Twenty-three years later, at the age of seventy, González was eating breakfast at his favorite San Antonio restaurant, when a customer referred to him as a communist. Again, the former Golden Gloves champion floored his detractor with his fist. According to Jan Jarboe Russell of Texas Monthly, who regularly met with González for breakfast, "He lived life as one long, tumultuous filibuster and was suited for the job: He had an ego that demanded life-or-death combat, the heart of a philosopher, and the bladder of an elephant." Russell added, "Like everyone in San Antonio, I both feared and admired Henry B. After all, he was regarded as only slightly less powerful than God and just as easy to offend." As González declared in his filibuster stand on the floor of the Texas Senate in 1957, "I appeal to the future for my vindication."
Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Book IV, Gale, 2000.
Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.
The Austin Chronicle, December 8, 2000.
Financial World, December 27, 1988.
National Review, April 29, 1988.
The New Republic, April 11, 1994.
Texas Monthly, December 1999; January 2001.
Time, December 11, 2000.
Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822-1995, http://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/congress/gonzález.html
Politico, www.politicomagazine.com/henryb112900.html (November 29, 2000).
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