Homer Thornberry: Congressman, Judge, and Advocate for Equal Rights by Homer Ross Tomlin
Homer Thornberry is a name probably lost to history for most Americans. That should not be true, though, and Homer Ross Tomlin's book provides a necessary corrective. Thornberry served in Congress from 1949 until 1963, holding Lyndon B. Johnson's old House seat. John F. Kennedy appointed Thornberry to a federal district judgeship in 1963, and two years later Johnson named him to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where he amassed a record as a progressive advocate of civil rights, much to the chagrin of his native South.
Born to impoverished parents who were deaf and mute, Thornberry worked his way through college and law school at the University of Texas. Tomlin tells this poignant story with a deft hand that allows the reader to view the world through Thornberry's eyes, which is the biggest challenge for any biographer. Thornberry's college job as a deputy sheriff gave him his first taste of public service, an appetite he never abandoned. He served in the Texas Legislature while he was still in law school, and later he was elected district attorney. He entered U.S. Naval Intelligence once the country began fighting in World War II.
After the war, Thornberry married Eloise Engle, with whom he had three children. He started a private legal practice, but he struggled to make ends meet. During these years he also served on the Austin City Council. Economic concerns about the cost of maintaining households in Washington, D.C., and Austin almost convinced Thornberry to pass on the 1948 race to replace Lyndon Johnson in the U.S. House of Representatives after Johnson had decided to run for the U.S. Senate. In Congress, Thornberry benefited from the mentorship of several powerful Texans, including Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. He also developed a close relationship with Johnson, but he never amassed the political clout of either of those men. Instead, Thornberry was a loyal lieutenant within the Democratic Party hierarchy. During his more than fourteen years in the House, Thornberry became associated with a range of issues, including education, especially for the deaf. As a member of the Rules Committee in [End Page 245] the early 1960s, he worked hard to help ensure that Kennedy's legislative program received consideration.
Thornberry had an even more illustrious career on the federal bench. Southerners hoped he would oppose civil rights as he had when he first entered Congress, but instead Thornberry became an important voice for the end of segregation. As a judge on the Fifth Circuit, he struck down Texas's poll tax months before the Supreme Court ruled the poll tax unconstitutional. Tomlin is at his best when he writes about the "active role" of the Fifth Circuit in "desegregating the South" (142). A moderate, Thornberry often worked with the four liberal judges on the Fifth Circuit to end segregated public facilities when cases were brought forward challenging white southerners for not adhering to the civil rights legislation of Johnson's Great Society. Indeed, Tomlin concluded, "As a congressman and judge, Thornberry had contributed to legislation and rulings at critical junctures that upheld basic civil liberties like the right to a quality education" (148).
Tomlin's book is based on thorough archival research. It also mixes Thornberry's story with a more general narrative of modern American political history. The contextual work situates Thornberry, but it also reveals Thornberry too often being reactive. Put differently, he was not driving the political debate but was responding to it. Scholars interested in twentieth century Texas political history should read this book.