For the uninitiated, newly arrived, or Gen-Xer Texan, the notion of Texas liberalism sweeping across the state like a brushfire seems an absurd one — or perhaps just the improbable patter of a burnt-out Lone Star longhair. From the stifling political rigidity today, it's hard to imagine how this state's social order (institutional conservatism, latent racism, apathetic masses) could improve down the road, let alone ever have been radically challenged and changed during the '50s and '60s — a time in Texas history that makes 21st-century conservatism look like a kegger at Oscar Wilde's house.

"Texas was the heart of the populist movement ... and race was the dominant issue." The words are those of David Richards, Lone Star hero of the left, tireless labor and civil rights lawyer, and former husband of Texas governor Ann Richards, as he spoke of the local political climate into which he was initiated nearly half a century ago. On a book tour promoting his memoir of the Texas liberal movement, Once Upon a Time in Texas: A Liberal in the Lone Star State, Richards discussed his stalwart political and social achievements, motivations, and feelings on the current state of Texas liberalism.

"I wanted to show the people coming up today that this `current political and social climate` isn't the way it always was," he emphasized. "People today often forget how intense the battles were." Court cases challenging legal segregation, institutionalized racism, blatant first amendment infringements, voting rights violations, and dozens of other struggles are often taken for granted today.

With a cast of characters that reads like a "who's who" of modern Texas folk heroes, including Molly Ivins, Frankie Randolph, Ronnie Dugger, Ralph Yarborough, and Henry B. Gonzales, the book begins where Richards started his own activist career: in 1950s Texas, where racial issues were the order of the day, and the governor's race was heating up between Yarborough, ("candidate for the radical minorities") and Allan Shivers (who publicly advocated the death penalty for American communists).

When the young, liberal, and radical Richards practiced law in Texas in the late '50s, he joined a movement with a daunting mission. "Racial campaigning was a key element in destroying the populist movement in the South," Richards writes. "By the mid-20th century, racism remained a central political technique used by the ruling conservative power brokers to retain control."

As times changed, and as legal and legislative fights were won, focus shifted to other causes, both on the streets and, inevitably, in the court room. In the '60s, "anti-war and free speech issues were the order of the day," and hippies, punks, Black and Brown power revolutionaries, among many others, were taking to the streets, pushing the envelope of legal protest and dissent.

"The leftist activists in Texas in the '60s started facing serious jail time," Richards explains, "because the entire state establishment was against them, and they were too poor to afford lawyers to defend them." So naturally, "we wanted to start an organization to legally defend the activists."

And defend them Richards did. Working with what were to become some of the state's greatest legal minds, Richards joined the Mullinax & Wells law firm, whose membership included Ted Robertson (later of the Texas Supreme Court), Sam Houston Clinton (later of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals), and Oscar Mauzy (also of the Texas Supreme Court), among others.

"First Amendment issues were fun during that time," Richards admits with a grin, "because they were just so obviously unconstitutional and therefore easy to argue. Black Panthers, La Raza members, and lots and lots of hippies were being jailed."

Richards and friends sprung into action to defend the cause, but, for various reasons, the activists wanted little help in playing The Man's game. "Their ideas of the courts was to use them as a guerrilla theater to further the movement, which didn't help them personally."

"There was a lot of friction between the protesters' and the lawyers' views of the system," Richards adds. "The lawyers were working within the system to further and legitimize the movement, but protesters wanted none of it. It was really kinda frustrating."

One such battle hit home in San Antonio, as Richards humorously relates the incredible situation at "Little Ned's Renaissance" (a hippie hangout named after Ronnie Dugger's baby brother) during that time. "The favorite pastime of the cops was to go to Little Ned's and bust the hippies under the vagrancy code, which made it illegal for anyone to 'stroll about the streets in idleness.'"

As the smoke from the '60s cleared, the reality of blatant voting rights violations involving the 1970s census figures in Texas came into clear view. "Race segregation prevented Blacks from voting, which just kept the same racists in power," Richards says. Working out of a converted Victorian home he bought and shared with the Texas Observer and the Texas Civil Liberties Union, Richards and his comrades exposed illegal legislative districting practices, and managed to get most of the Texas election code declared unconstitutional.

As the '80s rushed in, so did a new era of Reaganomics, elitism, and corporate rule. However, as the country prepared to slide collectively into materialism and enormous debt, Texas started experiencing a strange surge of populist politics. In 1982 Ann Richards, Jim Hightower, Jim Mattox, and Garry Mauro all filed for various high offices in Texas, signaling a triumphant, long-anticipated political victory for those who had fought for the little men and women of Texas for the past several decades.

Yet, as the battles for equality and expanded access to the better things in life were still being fought, the times they were a-changin'. Today, Richards admits he doesn't see much of the old fighting liberal spirit left in young Texans. The struggles have multiplied, the lines shifted, and the enemies are much harder to pinpoint and are mammoth in their global reach.

"The new galvanizing issues are economics and labor," he explains. He adds that the old assumptions about power and control don't apply in this new era: "The working folks must organize against corporate domination. They must realize that government control over their lives is inconsequential when compared with the ways corporations control their lives." He adds, "the question is how do we get people nowadays energized enough to fight for what's theirs, and what's being kept from them."

Richards' book reawakens the possibility that, despite the seeming enormity of the modern economic and social battles, victories might be possible for liberals in the Lone Star state.

Once Upon a Time in Texas: A Liberal in the Lone Star State
By David Richards,
University of Texas Press, Austin
$39.95, 267 pages
ISBN: 0292771185