Yarborough, Ralph Webster
Yarborough, Ralph Webster
(b. 8 June 1903 in Chandler, Texas; d. 27 January 1996 in Austin, Texas), U.S. senator (1957–1971), leader of liberal Democrats, attorney, district judge, conservationist, humanitarian, and orator.
Yarborough’s story began in rural eastern Texas, where he was the seventh of nine children born to Charles Richard Yarborough, a farmer and justice of the peace, and Nannie Jane Spear, a homemaker. He attended local public schools in Chandler before transferring to Tyler High School in a nearby county; he graduated with honors in 1919. Yarborough spent one year at the United States Military Academy, traveled to Europe, and then worked in wheat fields in Oklahoma and Kansas and oil boomtowns in Texas. He taught in one-room schools while he attended Sam Houston State Teachers College in Huntsville, Texas, in 1921 to obtain state teacher’s certification, He then worked his way through the University of Texas Law School (Austin), from which he graduated with highest honors in 1927. His hobbies included fishing, hunting, and collecting books and historic documents, and he had an avid interest in the Civil War. In June 1928 he married Opal Catherine Warren, his longtime sweetheart, after she told him, “I won’t marry a man in politics.” The couple moved to El Paso, where Yarborough practiced law in a prestigious West Texas firm. They had one child.
Newly elected as Texas attorney general, James Allred offered Yarborough a job in 1931. Yarborough’s four years as an assistant attorney general placed him in the forefront of the state’s efforts to protect public lands and resources. He gained statewide recognition for legal victories that preserved future oil and gas revenues for Texas public schools and universities. As a result of these decisions, the state’s educational funds accumulated billions of dollars. One settlement alone generated more than $1 million for Texas, the second-largest legal judgment for the state.
Allred became governor of Texas in 1935 and rewarded his protégé with an appointment as a state district judge (1936–1940). Yarborough later decisively won election to the bench. He attempted to follow in Allred’s footsteps but lost the Democratic nomination for attorney general in 1938. World War II interrupted his political career. He served in Europe in the Ninety-seventh Infantry Division under General George Patton’s Third Army until the victory of the Allied forces in Europe in May of 1945. He then left for the Pacific, where General Douglas MacArthur, commander of U.S. forces in the Far East and, later, military governor of occupied Japan, appointed Yarborough as military governor for Honshu Province. By the time Yarborough was discharged as a lieutenant colonel in 1946, he had a Bronze Star, a Battle Star, and six other service medals.
The conservatism that replaced the prewar reform sentiments in Texas failed to alter Yarborough’s views as he launched three unsuccessful races for governor in the 1950s. In doing so, he became the leader of liberal and reform Democrats in the state. Governor Allan Shivers, a conservative Democrat, survived two successive challenges from Yarborough. In the close 1954 race, Shivers used fears of communism, organized labor, and racial integration to fend off Yarborough’s upset bid. In 1956 Shivers declined to run again, and U.S. senator Price Daniel, Sr., bested Yarborough in another controversial gubernatorial campaign.
Although he lost three successive races, Yarborough’s popularity increased with each election. Victory finally came in the hard-fought 1957 special election to replace Daniel in the U.S. Senate. Yarborough prevailed over a crowded field of twenty-one candidates. A year later, Yarborough won a full term with his famous slogan, “Let’s Put the Jam on the Lower Shelf So the Little People Can Reach It.” His victories helped preserve majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson’s slim hold on the Senate during the final years of the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. But the two influential Texans clashed on legislation and personal issues, and Yarborough supported Senator John F. Kennedy over Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960.
Yarborough’s liberal social and economic views more closely resembled those of western and northern Democrats rather than traditional southern Democrats. When he first entered the Senate, Yarborough joined with Senate Majority Leader Johnson and two other senators from former Confederate states to pass the Civil Rights Bill of 1957. Later, Senator Yarborough supported President Johnson’s historic 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Yarborough earned the distinction of being the only senator from the Old South to favor every major civil rights bill from 1957 through 1970. He also coauthored the National Defense Education Act in 1958.
Because of his controversial positions, Yarborough often clashed with the Texas congressional delegation. Nonetheless, Yarborough sponsored more legislation than any senator ever elected from Texas. After President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Yarborough and Johnson put aside most of their differences to achieve their common goals. Nearly every piece of legislation during the Johnson administration that involved education, health, labor, science, the environment, or veterans carried the name of Yarborough as a sponsor or earned his active support. His advocacy in these areas resulted in broad economic improvements nationwide and opened new doors of opportunity for millions of Americans. He ultimately broke with President Johnson, however, over the Vietnam War. Yarborough’s antiwar statements, the rejection of the 1960s domestic reform agenda, and his own overconfidence led to a surprising loss to former congressman Lloyd Bentsen, Jr., in the 1970 Democratic primary. He died of heart failure and is buried in the state cemetery in Austin, Texas.
Yarborough, called “the People’s Senator” for his accomplishments in the U.S. Senate, became the political leader of Texas liberals during the post—World War II era, when Texas and the South underwent dramatic political, social, and economic change. Yarborough’s life offers a window into the changes in Texas and the nation during the twentieth century. His contributions to the political culture of Texas rival his legislative accomplishments. He followed the strong populist, antiestablishment streak that had survived since the era of Sam Houston (1793–1863), the U.S. senator and governor of Texas who was one of Yarborough’s heroes. Along with preserving this legacy, Yarborough inspired two successive generations of Democratic officeholders. His large following rivaled that of his more famous counterpart, Lyndon Johnson. A litany of nationally recognized Texas leaders that included former governors Allan Shivers, Price Daniel, Sr., and John Connally as well as Lloyd Bentsen, Jr., sparred with him on everything from major policy issues to petty personal issues. His politics may have been controversial to some, but few questioned his integrity or his sincerity.
Yarborough reveled in the populist-styled traditions of the pretelevision political era. His oratorical skills combined with his keen mind served him in his whirlwind campaigns that often seemed more like old-time religious revivals. Beneath the public persona of a liberal politician working for reform was a private man driven by the urge to implant his vision in Texas and the rest of the nation. His intense devotion and desire sometimes exposed a temper that stung his closest advisers and staff members like a whip, yet he was usually courteous and friendly to everyone. Yarborough, who was of medium build, with wavy black hair and a wide smile, never tired of making speeches and shaking hands, a practice he continued until the final years of his life. With his tremendous yet melodious voice, Yarborough was fond of repeating a statement that represented his personal and political beliefs—“People are our greatest resource.”
Ralph Yarborough’s personal and Senate papers are located at the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. Biographies include Patrick L. Cox, The People’s Senator: Ralph W. Yarborough (2001), and William G. Phillips, Yarborough of Texas (1969), a campaign biography for the 1970 election. Evaluations of Yarborough’s political role in Texas and the nation are provided in Chandler Davidson, Race and Class in Texas Politics (1990); George N. Green, The Establishment in Texas Politics (1979); and Kenneth E. Hendrickson, Jr., and Michael L. Collins, eds., Profiles in Power: Twentieth-century Texans in Washington (1993). Among many articles and publications by Ralph Yarborough are frank Dobie: Man and Friend (1967) and “Lincoln as a Liberal Statesman,” in Lincoln for the Ages, edited by Ralph G. Newman (rev. ed., 1964). Obituaries are in the New York Times (28 Jan. 1996) and Texas Observer (23 Feb. 1996).
Patrick L. Cox