One of the most colorful and divisive as well as enduring figures ever in Texas politics made his first appearance on the political stage during the Democratic primary of 1914. James E. Ferguson, a banker and businessman from Temple and a newcomer to state politics, was running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Attempting to ride a wave of farmer discontent to the governor's office, Ferguson, who encouraged use of the term "Farmer Jim," declared that, if elected, he would push a bill through the state legislature setting maximum limits on shares of crops due landowners who employed tenant farmers/sharecroppers. Landowners had been increasing charges to tenants and croppers as more and more farmers fell down the agricultural ladder. Ferguson proposed to limit by statute these charges to one-quarter of cotton crops and one-third of grain crops with a ban on the cash bonuses increasingly demanded by landowners. While an urban banker and businessman himself, "Farmer Jim" picked up the support of rural farmers, which he would largely retain for the next thirty years. Ferguson, who's primary opponent was prohibitionist Thomas H. Ball of Houston, also received the support of Texas brewers because of his opposition to prohibition. With these important supporters' help, Ferguson won the nomination in the primary and waltzed home to victory in the November election.
During his first term Governor Ferguson succeeded in delivering on his promise to farmers. In 1915 the legislature enacted and Governor Ferguson signed into law the rental plank limiting shares charged to croppers and banning cash bonus demands. This would mark the highpoint of his gubernatorial administration but was largely a hollow victory for farmers since it was never really implemented or enforced and was declared unconstitutional in 1921. Governor Ferguson, in many ways, was more supportive of urban, industrial interests than of agricultural interests who would continue their support over the next three decades.
Having ruffled few feathers, Ferguson won the customary second term in 1916 but very quickly ran into troubles when he sought to pressure University of Texas officials into firing several professors who were personally objectionable to the governor. UT President Robert E. Vinson proved a formidable opponent as he refused to fire the professors and publicly called for an end to political interference in educational matters. Unable to get the Board of Regents to overrule President Vinson, Governor Ferguson responded by vetoing the entire budgetary appropriation for the university for the next biennium in June 1917. The action immediately produced a firestorm of criticism.
Students at the Austin campus marched on the capitol calling for an end to gubernatorial tyranny and one-man rule. The Board of Regents stood firmly behind Vinson. Most importantly, the influential alumni of the University swung into action, calling upon legislators to deal firmly with Ferguson. The legislature responded on June 23, 1917, when the Speaker of the House of Representatives called for a special session of the legislature. This was clearly an unconstitutional act, as the Constitution of 1876 clearly states that only the governor has the power to call a special session of the legislature and to set its agenda or those matters it can consider during such a session. Governor Ferguson, however, committed a crucial mistake by authorizing the session by issuing his own call since it was going to meet anyway. However, he did not include the matter of impeachment in his call.
The legislature, more intent on dealing with Ferguson than observing legal niceties, immediately began the process of impeachment. The House of Representatives voted out twenty-one charges, calling for the Senate to find Ferguson guilty and remove him from office. Many of the charges were weak, extraneous, or superfluous, but several were substantial and damning. First, the representatives charged that Ferguson's UT appropriation veto was unconstitutional. Second, the House charged that the governor had illegally funneled state funds to his own purposes. Third, Governor Ferguson was charged with having illegally deposited state funds in his own bank - the Temple State Bank - and having personally profited from this transaction because his bank wasn't paying interest on the funds to the state of Texas. Finally, the House of Representatives charged that Ferguson had accepted a bribe/illegal loan or contribution of $156,000 from brewing interests in 1916.
While Governor Ferguson maintained that the charges of impeachment were unconstitutional because the session's call had not included this subject, he defended himself when the Senate began the trial phase of the impeachment process. It appeared he didn't have the votes to escape however and therefore in a last-minute attempt to escape the judgment of the Senate Ferguson resigned on September 24, 1917. This was to no avail as hours later the Senate found him guilty of several impeachment charges, ordered his removal from office, and barred him from ever again holding an office authorized by the state constitution. Lieutenant Governor William P. Hobby took the oath of office and assumed the governorship.
"Pa" Ferguson went to court maintaining that the impeachment and ban from state office were illegal and challenged Hobby for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1918. "Naturally the deposed governor resented his successor. Ferguson ridiculed his opponent's big ears and lack of height. Hobby answered, "I will admit that the Supreme Being failed to favor me with physical attributes pleasing to Governor Ferguson, but at least he gave me the intelligence to know the difference between my own money and that which belongs to the state." When Ferguson, objecting to the construction of tennis courts at the Mansion, suggested a cow lot instead, Hobby responded, "It's too bad that the ex-Governor didn't think of the milch cow pen while he was in office. They say in those days he confined his milking activities to the public treasury." Ex-Governor Ferguson lost both of these battles. First, Hobby won seventy percent of the vote in the primary, winning the nomination. Secondly, the Texas Supreme Court held both the impeachment and ban from office constitutional. Yet, Ferguson refused to yield and would reemerge in the 1920s as a dominant figure in Texas politics. That reemergence would involve the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan in Texas.
Organized at Stone Mountain, Georgia, in 1915 by Colonel William J. Simmons of Atlanta, the Klan dominated the politics of the Southwest during the early years of the Twenties. Tenets of the new Klan's ideology were anti-Catholicism, white supremacy, hatred of Jews, anti-radicalism, opposition to continued immigration, and moral censorship. Membership in the secret order was principally confined to the lower middle class. However, men prominent in business, politics, and even law enforcement donned white robes and hoods, and many clergymen welcomed it as an agency to enforce Christian moral behavior.
The Klan's remarkable spread and popularity can be explained in part by the appeal it made to the imaginations of the common people of the time. The weird costumes, the spectacular initiations beneath the glare of fiery torches and crosses, the nightly parades through streets drew men and women from near and far to gaze in awe. Such spectacles broke the deadly monotony of their days. A close observer of the Klan in Texas suggested that there was a great "inferiority complex" on the part of the Klan membership, due in part to lack of education. He noted that Dallas and Fort Worth, where the Klan was especially strong, were largely populated by people reared in obscure little towns and rural areas where public schools were short-termed and scarce. Concerning Klan psychology, sociologist John Macklin wrote these words about the average man of native American stock who filled the ranks of the Klan:
By 1922 Klan membership in the state was between 75,000 and 90,000. The Realm of Texas was organized into five provinces. The Grand Titan of Province No. 2, Dallas dentist Hiram Wesley Evans, soon became National Secretary of the Klan. In November 1922 Evans was elected national Empirial Wizard.
From 1922 to 1924 the secret order was the chief issue in Texas politics; it elected sheriffs, district attorneys, judges, and legislators. Probably a majority of the House of Representatives of the 38th legislature were Klansmen. In Waco, the mayor and the Board of Police Commissioners were Klansmen. So were the county judge of Dewitt and the sheriffs of Jefferson and Travis counties. When a newspaper charged that the city and county officials of Dallas were Klansmen, no denial was made. Perhaps as many as 400,000 Texans belonged to the Klan at one time or another during the Twenties.
According to Charles Alexander, the "distinctive quality" of the KKK in the Southwest was "its motivation, which lay not so much in racism and nativism as in moral authoritarianism." More than anything else, the Klan was "an instrument for restoring law and order and Victorian morality to the communities, towns, and cities of the region. Its coercive activity and its later preoccupation with political contests make vigilantism and politics the main characteristics of Klan history in the Southwest."
Only a small portion of the Klan's defense of morality and society was directed at blacks. Its campaign of systematic terrorism was aimed mostly at bootleggers, gamblers, wayward husbands and wives, wife beaters, and other "sinners." At Timpson, Texas, Klansman took a white man from his home and beat him because he had separated from his wife. Similar treatment befell a Brenham man who spoke German, a divorced man in Dallas, a black bellhop in the same city believed to be a pimp, a Houston lawyer accused of annoying girls, and many other moral errants. A woman was taken from a hotel in Tenaha, stripped, beaten with a wet rope, and tarred and feathered because there was some question whether her second marriage had been preceded by a divorce. The Klan in Dallas was credited with having flogged sixty-eight people in the spring of 1922, most of them at a special KKK whipping meadow along the Trinity River bottom.
Some Texans were alarmed by these outrages and attempted to take preventative measures. A number of outspoken district judges ordered investigations and some city officials attempted to prevent Klan parades. Forty-nine members of the state legislature petitioned Governor Pat Neff for an anti-mask law. Chambers of Commerce, American Legions, the Daughters of the American Republic, the Texas Bar Association, the Masons, and others denounced the Klan. The most serious threat to the political activity of the Klan in the Dallas area was the Dallas County Citizens' League, formed on April 4, 1922, at a mass meeting of five thousand citizens. The League denounced the Klan for its terrorism and violation of the laws of the state and Constitution of the nation, and accused it of trying to destroy political and religious freedom.
The League efforts against the Klan were not very impressive, at least not in political terms. In 1922 practically all of the Klan-backed candidates for office in Dallas County won, including the one running for district attorney. The following year the anti-Klan mayor of Dallas and others on his ticket were defeated by an almost three-to-one vote.
In 1922 the secret order made its influence felt quite dramatically in the race for United States senator. In the Democratic party primary race Senator Charles A. Culberson, hampered by ill health, campaigned for reelection in a less than forceful manners. Three of his opponents were admittedly pro-Klan, while the remaining four were anti-Klan. Among the former group, the KKK in Texas endorsed Earle B. Mayfield of Austin, a member of the State Railroad Commission. Mayfield received a plurality in the primary. The runner-up was former Governor James E. Ferguson. Mayfield won the run-off by 45,000 votes. It is, of course, impossible to determine how many of Mayfield's votes were cast against "Fergusonism" or how much of the former governor's support was anti-Klan. What is certain is that the Klan played a prominent role in the two primary campaigns. Mayfield trounced his Republican opponent in the general election.
Governor Pat M. Neff, whom the KKK considered "favorable", was reelected. Most of the state's congressmen tried to straddle the Klan issue, although John Nance Garner spoke out against the order. Though reelected, he lost areas, including his home county of Uvalde, that he had always carried before.
In 1924 Klansmen and Klan supporters probably controlled the State Democratic Convention which selected delegates to the national convention. That meeting proved to be the high water mark politically for the KKK in Texas. In the governor's race that year the hooded order campaigned actively for Judge Felix Robertson of Dallas. His opponent in the Democratic primary run-off, Miriam A. Ferguson and her husband, the former governor, ran a straight-out anti-Klan campaign. Mrs. Ferguson won by nearly 100,000 votes.
At the second State Democratic Convention of 1924, which met after Mrs. Ferguson's Democratic primary run-off victory, the Ku Klux Klan in Texas was given a merciless political drubbing. The convention inserted in its platform an anti-Klan plank that began: "The Democratic party emphatically condemns and denounces what is known as the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan as an un-democratic, un-Christian and un-American organization." Though many Texas Klansmen voted for Mrs. Ferguson's Republican opponent in November, she won handily.
The gubernatorial campaign of 1924 signaled the passing of the Klan as a significant force in Texas politics. "After Robertson was beaten," a former Klansman recalled, "the prominent men left the Klan. The Klan's standing went with them." By the end of the year Texas was no longer the number one state in Klandom. The following year Mrs. Ferguson persuaded the legislature to pass a bill making it unlawful for any secret society to allow its members to be masked or otherwise disguised in public. This law was a serious blow to the KKK. Also, at long last, many of the so-called "best people" who had joined what they thought was an agency of reform, realized that it had become a cloak for outrages. Membership dropped from a high of 97,000 in the summer of 1924 to about 18,000 at the beginning of 1926. In the summer of 1927 Governor Dan Moody declared, "The Klan in Texas is as dead as the proverbial doornail." Though this was an exaggeration, the Klan had, by the end of the decade, dwindled to a negligible force in Texas politics and social life.
Returning to the subject of Fergusonism, Ex-Governor James Ferguson had long chafed at the embarrassment and political disability brought on by his impeachment and removal from office in 1917. In 1919 "Farmer Jim" formed his own political organization, the American Party, and declared himself a candidate for the president of the United States. Ferguson's political disability did not extend to federal offices. His primary purpose, undoubtedly, was to keep his name before the voters of Texas. In 1922 his race for the United States Senate was an attempt to gain political vindication. Though he failed, Ferguson was far from finished in Texas politics. In 1923, friends tried to get the ex-governor's political rights restored in Texas. The effort appeared to work when on February 9 the anti-Ferguson Lieutenant Governor T. Whitfield Davidson had to absent himself from the chair of the state senate. This left Archie Parr of Duval County, a friend of the Fergusons, in charge. Another Ferguson supporter immediately moved that the ex-governor's rights be restored. Parr quickly gaveled the motion through. Davidson, on hearing what had happened, rushed back and, using similar parliamentary tactics, reversed the action of "Farmer Jim's" friends. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram carried the headline the next morning, "Ferguson Citizen For 30 Minutes!"
This brings us back to the gubernatorial campaign of 1924. Unable to pursue the office of governor himself, Ferguson decided that his wife Miriam would run for it. Most political experts discounted Mrs. Ferguson's chances, believing that Judge Felix Robertson would win the Democratic nomination.
Typical Ferguson rallies during the primary campaign opened with the candidate making a plea to the women in the audience to help her clear her family's name. "A vote for me," she would say, "is a vote of confidence for my husband." She would then cheerfully admit that she was no orator and introduce "Pa," as her husband had come to be called by then. "Ma" made the run-off by only about 5,000 votes, trailing Robertson by almost 50,000.
Then followed one of the most heated political campaigns in Texas history. The Ferguson forces adopted as campaign slogans, "Me for Ma, and I ain't got a durn thing against Pa," "A bonnet and not a hood," and "Two governors for the price of one." The Robertson camp countered with "Not Me For Ma, Too Much Pa!" Indeed the ex-governor directed his wife's campaign and continued to make most of the speeches. His barbs were directed mainly at the KKK, which, as stated earlier, supported Robertson's candidacy. Ferguson's fight with the Klan was based partly on principle, partly because the Klan's desire to dominate Texas politically clashed with his own ambition.
Mrs. Ferguson trounced Robertson in the run-off, and, though many anti-Ferguson and pro-Klan Democrats voted for the Republican candidate in November, "Ma" won by 125,000 votes. Two factors probably explain her electoral success. Her husband still remained the idol of the dirt farmers, the "boys at the forks of the creeks," and with other rural voters as well. Also, as indicated before, the tide of Klan popularity had by this time reached its high water mark and was receding.
When the Fergusons pulled their car to a halt before the governor's mansion in January 1925, "Ma" reputedly said, "We departed in disgrace; we now return in glory." Her term as governor, to be gracious, was less than glorious.
Mrs. Ferguson's message to the legislature in 1925 took note of the state's current $2 million deficit and anticipated deficit-spending amounting to an additional $5 million. To reduce this deficit she asked for an increase in the state gasoline tax and the imposition of a small tax on tobacco. She also called for, among other things, an investigation of the Banking Department, which she alleged to be in a deplorable condition. Mrs. Ferguson, like her predecessor, got very little of what she requested. No new taxes were levied, no new state agencies were established, and no new important laws were enacted.
One statement in Mrs. Ferguson's legislative message illustrates historian Rupert Richardson's assertion that during her administration "reform took a holiday." Referring to crowded prison conditions, the new governor declared, "I shall adopt a most liberal policy in the matter of pardons." Pardons there were aplenty; more than 2,000 of them. One apocryphal tale had it that a man began to walk through a door at the same time as Mrs. Ferguson. "Pardon me," he said politely. She responded, "Sure. Come on in. It'll only take a minute or two to do the paperwork." There was never any doubt about who was really behind these grants of clemency or any other decision which came from the state's chief executive's office. Noted one insider, "Jim's the governor; Ma signs the papers." One story, which circulated widely and - - whether true or not - - was used with telling effect against Mrs. Ferguson when she ran for reelection in 1926, concerned the visit of the father of a convicted criminal to Jim Ferguson's office. The father pleaded with the ex-governor to intercede with his wife to pardon his son. Ferguson, however, insisted on talking about a horse he wanted to sell for the ridiculously high price of $5,000. The clearly exasperated man finally asked, "What on earth would I want with a $5,000 horse?" The alleged reply was, "Well, I figure your son might ride him home from the penitentiary if you bought him." Stories like this led to a legislative investigation. A joint House-Senate committee reported that many of Ma's pardons had indeed been granted on the recommendation of her husband, some before the criminal had even reached state prison.
Another charge was that any company building roads for the state had to buy advertising at very exorbitant rates in the Ferguson Forum, a political newspaper, if it expected to continue being granted state highway contracts. Although a House committee investigated the charge, ex-Governor Ferguson sat with the committee and dominated its meetings to the extent that nothing could be accomplished. More charges ensued that highway contracts were being granted on the basis of personal friendship and favoritism. Attorney General Dan Moody, perhaps motivated as much by the possibility of political advancement as by a devotion to honest government, conducted his own investigation. He found that two companies were to receive more than $7 million for road building though they would have spent less than $2 million to construct these roads.
In March 1926, Moody announced that he would oppose Mrs. Ferguson in the Democratic primary. He stated that the power of Jim Ferguson in the governor's office amounted to a "government by proxy." Moody promised that, if elected, he would restore honesty in state government and insisted that the overriding issue before the voters was "Fergusonism." He charged that the ex-governor directed the programs of the State Highway Commission and supervised the award of contracts of the Textbook Commission.
The Fergusons, in an effort to use the Klan issue as they had done so successfully in 1924, attempted to link Moody with the Invisible Empire. In the opening rally of the campaign at Sulpher Springs, Jim Ferguson pledged not to throw mud in the campaign, but then declared, "I am going to throw rocks." That he did. Ferguson charged, "Moody's campaign was daddied in the evoluted monkey end of the Baptist church and boosted by the KKK and supported by the big oil companies opposed to the gasoline tax." However, since Moody, first as a county and a district attorney and then as Attorney General, had diligently and successfully fought the Klan, the Fergusons could not effectively accuse him of being sympathetic to it. Moody replied by referring to Ferguson's impeachment: "I have held three public offices in this state, and I have never been hauled before the bar of any court of justice for misconduct in any of them.....It may be that I have no peculiar qualifications for the office of governor, but at least I have never been forbidden from holding any office of honor, trust or profit in Texas."
An interesting sidelight of the campaign was Mrs. Ferguson's challenge to Moody in her brief opening speech in Sulpher Springs: "I will agree that if he leads me one vote in the primary, I will immediately resign...if he will agree that if I lead him 25,000 in the primary, he will immediately resign." Against the advice of some of his campaign managers, Moody accepted the wager. Mrs. Ferguson, however, failed to follow through when Moody led her by 125,000 votes in the first primary. Moody won the run-off by over 200,000 votes and whipped the Republican nominee in the general election.
Yet, even with "Ma's" defeat by Dan Moody in 1926, Fergusonism did not end in Texas as will become apparent as you read about the Great Depression era of the 1930s.