Friday, August 28, 2009

Trail of Tears: Being a Liberal from Texas

Most folks know I grew up in Tyler, Texas. Now for those not familiar with Tyler, suffice it to say that it is a part of Texas where liberal politics can appear to be something of an endangered species. The town abounds in Baptist churches. I used to joke saying there was one on every corner. That was an exaggeration of course, but not by much. I grew up attending Glenwood Methodist Church, but after growing up landed in the Tyler Unitarian fellowship.

Just recently I went back to Tyler. That little fellowship is still thriving after all these years. A magnet for liberals of all sorts, huddled together to ward off the cries of intolerance. When I was president of the fellowship, we learned our small church had actually been investigated by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Ours was not the only one. A Dallas Unitarian Church was also investigated at the time. They were concerned about possible "un-American activities" and of course they should have been. We dared be opposed to the Vietnam War, talked about liberal notions, and even had a pastor who called for the legalization of pot. Our parties were the best in town, with dancing, plenty of alcohol, occasional pig roasts out by the lake, and always enlightened conversation. One older couple who spent time at the home with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. A labor leader who had a cross burned in his yard. We always sang I Am Woman by Helen Ready in these early days of the women's movement. Great debates would rage over the efficacy of socialism, or perhaps deeper matters of spirituality. My friend introduces me to her cat named Owsley. I smile knowing that is the chemist who made much of the LSD out on the west coast. We are talking of the sixties and seventies after all. All ideas were subject to discussion and active debate. In a real sense we were a family all our own in the truest and best sense. Incidentally the investigation was leaked, and a legislative committee clipped the wings of the overzealous DPS for those investigations.

I remember campaigning for Sissy Fahrenthold for Governor of Texas. That year the foregone conclusion was that Ben Barnes was the appointed successor to power, but we rallied behind this liberal feminist from Corpus Christi. Seriously, we spent hundreds of hours knocking on doors, answering and calling folks on phones, and silk screening hundreds of posters to put out all over town. I also worked my heart out for George McGovern that year and became the coordinator for voter registration in the East Texas area.

Now Sissy did pretty good, and got into a runoff that year against a conservative rancher named Dolph Briscoe. Everyone was surprised when Barnes did not get into the runoffs. But Texas was a conservative state, and despite our best efforts, Sissy lost in the runoff and Briscoe went on to be governor. Tyler was so conservative, the locals were mostly amused by our efforts. Occasionally some red neck would unload on us, but mostly they just chuckled.

Yet looking back, we produced some darn good liberals from our part of the world. Bill Moyers grew up in Marshall. U.S. Senator Ralph Yarbrough, Federal Judge William Wayne Justice, and head of the Texas Civil Liberties Union Bill Kugle were all from Chandler, a small town on the outskirts of Tyler. From nearby Minneola hailed later to be San Francisco mayor Willie Brown. When he was the leader of the California Assembly he came to Tyler. I was appointed as driver for him and actor Robert Culp when they appeared for the East Texas Fair to campaign for George McGovern.

On occasion I took a lot of crap off folks for my politics. I think that is why we were such good liberals. It is hard to stay one in that environment unless you learn to take care of yourself, and your beliefs are stronger for having been required to defend them. In this day, when I think of how far to the right Texas politics has moved, I'm reminded of my friends back at that Unitarian Fellowship. Some are still there all the way from when I was a member. Together they keep the flame of liberalism burning in spite of it all. In my book they are heroes.

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