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The Texas Experience - Ralph Yarborough Presents County Courthouses

Jim Ruddy

Sound | 1986

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  •  Ralph Yarborough describes county courthouses.  
  •  100 years later.  
 
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Produced by Jim Ruddy and presented by the Shell Companies Foundation and the Texas Committee for the Humanities, The Texas Experience presents the history of Texas through a series of one-minute clips. Each clip features a celebrity narrator briefly exploring a specific aspect of Texas history or culture, with topics ranging from early women settlers to Buddy Holly's short but influential career. In this episode, U.S. Senator Ralph Yarborough introduces the symbolic role that the county courthouse played in Texas communities.
Ralph Webster Yarborough, known as "Smilin' Ralph," was a U.S. senator representing Texas from 1957 through 1971. Yarborough was born in Chandler, Texas in 1903 as the seventh of nine children, and went on to attend Sam Houston State Teachers College as a young man before attending the University of Texas, where he graduated from the law school in 1927.
 
In 1931, Yarborough began a short but notable career as an assistant attorney general.  As an expert in Texas land law assigned to represent the interests of the Permanent School Fund, Yarborough won a number of cases against major oil companies such as Magnolia Petroleum and Mid-Kansas, through which he was able to guarantee that public schools and universities receive revenues from Texas oil.  This litigation has since brought billions of dollars to public education.
 
In 1938, Yarborough decided to run for attorney general but lost; it would take another 12 years for him to run for any kind of office again. In the interim, he served in the Texas National Guard and the U.S. Army during World War II. In 1952, running against conservative incumbent R. Allan Shivers for the governorship, Yarborough lost his second race. He continued this losing streak against Shivers in the 1954 primary and then again against Senator Marion Price Daniel, Sr. in 1956. In 1957, however, he was able to win Daniel's vacated seat in the senate next to Lyndon Baines Johnson.
 
In the senate, Yarborough pursued a progressive agenda, first refusing to sign the Southern Manifesto against desegregation and then being one of only five Southern senators to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1957. For the environment, he pushed through a bill to elevate Padre Island to the status of National Seashore.  For education, he introduced the first Bilingual Education Act in 1967, which was signed into law a year later.  He worked to expand health care funding and to extend the G.I. Bill to Cold War veterans.  In 1969, Yarborough chaired the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare.
 
Aside from his legislation, Ralph Yarborough is also remembered for riding in the 1963 Dallas motorcade in which John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  The story goes that, being at odds with several of the other politicians on the President's tour, Yarborough originally refused to share a car with LBJ, who was friends with his rivals. This so outraged Kennedy that on the morning of the motorcade he took Yarborough aside and threatened to end their friendship if Yarborough did not cooperate.  The senator conceded and ended up just two cars behind the president when he was fatally shot that afternoon.  When interviewed about that day, Yarborough described it as "the most tragic event of my life."
 
In 1970, Yarborough lost his seat in an upset election against Lloyd Bentsen. While he ran once more for office, he did not win again.
 
In 1996, Yarborough died at the age of 92. He is buried in Austin at the Texas State Cemetery.