AUSTIN, Texas—The Center for American History (CAH) at The University of Texas at Austin has initiated a one-year project to conduct oral histories with Speakers of the Texas House, including current Speaker Tom Craddick.
Dr. Patrick Cox, CAH assistant director for congressional collections, is supervising the project titled, “A Speaker from Its Own Members: A Project Documenting the History of the Speakers of the Texas House of Representatives.”
The speaker of the Texas House, along with the governor and the lieutenant governor, ranks among the three most powerful officeholders in Texas politics, yet speakers in the Texas House have enjoyed relatively limited visibility, according to Cox. He said few Texans are fully aware of the office’s significance. To help remedy this lack of awareness, the Center for American History will conduct interviews with former and current speakers of the House and will collect a comprehensive archive of documents related to the office. The project also will research the history of the speaker’s official residence, located within the Texas Capitol.
“It is my hope that this project will provide generations of people in Texas—children, students and scholars—with material to stimulate their intellects and promote participation in the democratic process,” Craddick said. “I also personally hope that it will kindle in their hearts an understanding of the privilege to serve that is the essence of the speakership."
The interviews will be conducted by Cox; Dr. Don Carleton, director of the Center for American History; and Dr. Michael Phillips, project researcher and coordinator.
“As the home of the papers of Sam Rayburn, John Nance Garner, Dolph Briscoe Jr., and dozens of other former members of the Texas legislature, the Center for American History has long been a leader in documenting the history of our state’s legislative process,” said Carleton. “We hope this project will raise the historical visibility of one of the most powerful offices in Texas government.”
“A Speaker from Its Own Members” will cover the period from 1951, the year Reuben Senterfitt took the gavel, to the present. The other living speakers are Jim T. Lindsey, Waggoner Carr, James A. Turman, Ben Barnes, Gus F. Mutscher, Rayford Price, Bill Clayton, Gibson D. Lewis, James M. (Pete) Laney and Craddick.
The period in which these speakers served has been a particularly dramatic time in Texas history. In this era, speakers reacted to the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the subsequent desegregation of Texas public schools. Speakers responded to the rise of the space industry and other modern technologies that transformed the economy of Texas. Speakers dealt with the state’s explosive population growth following World War II even as they coped with a more complex economy and a rising demand for government services in education, transportation and health care. Speakers rose and fell with the rising fortunes of conservative and liberal factions within the Texas Democratic Party and with the ascendancy of the state Republican Party, culminating in the GOP’s eventual capture of the state government in the 2000 elections. They also struggled with the Sharpstown political scandal, subsequent attempts to limit the power of the speaker’s office, the failed effort to rewrite the state Constitution in the 1970s, and a dramatic, quorum-breaking walkout from dissenting lawmakers who objected to a congressional redistricting bill in 2002.
Carleton has been director of the Center for American History since its creation in 1991 and is author of the award-winning books “A Breed So Rare: The Life of J. R. Parten, Liberal Texas Oil Man, 1896-1992” (Texas State Historical Association, 1998) and “Red Scare” (Texas Monthly Press, 1985). Cox is the author of “Ralph W. Yarborough, the People’s Senator” (University of Texas Press, 2001), is co-editor of “Profiles in Power: Twentieth Century Texans in Washington, D.C.” (University of Texas Press, Spring 2004), and serves as the coordinator of the CAH Institute for News Media History. Phillips is a 2002 graduate of The University of Texas at Austin and author of the upcoming book “The Fire This Time: The Battle Over Racial, Regional and Religious Identities in Dallas, Texas, 1840-2000” (University of Texas Press).