YESTERDAY

The First Leftie

I AM AVERSE TO RAPID CHANGE; I strive for balance and order. I am opposed to high taxes and government meddling; I am a classic conservative. So why do I get teary-eyed when I watch a documentary on the life of Margaret Sanger or Rosa Parks? I even have to confess to an admiration for George Clifton Edwards, who was, of all things, a Socialist and a thorn in the side of the Dallas establishment for more than 50 years.

After earning a master’s degree at Harvard, Edwards, the son of an ex-Dallas city attorney, came home to teach school in 1901. He lived in a shotgun house among the cotton mill workers a few blocks south of downtown and created a commotion by speaking out against the practice of working 12-year-old children for 12 hours a day. He started the first night school for the mill children and successfully lobbied the state Legislature for a child labor law. He and his wife both contracted tuberculosis while living in the squalid conditions of South Dallas, and they lost two infant daughters to dysentery.

In 1906, Edwards ran for governor on the Socialist ticket, which did not get him many votes but did get him fired by the school board. He studied law, and in 1910defendedAllen Brooks, a 68-year-old black man accused of assaulting a young white girl. However, a mob stormed the courthouse, kidnapped the defendant and hanged him at Main and Akard.

In spite of his association with unpopular causes, Edwards made an astonishingly strong showing in a bid for mayor of Dallas in 1913, when, running as a Socialist, he captured 1,809 votes, compared with the winner’s 3,164. He became a one-man legal aid clinic, representing debtors against loan sharks, out-of-work homeowners faced with foreclosure, blacks, the injured and the maimed. His office resembled a hospital emergency room. His legal opposition to usurious loans resulted in the treble damages law that is still in the state’s legal code.

In 1931, he made arrangements for the release of two “labor agitators” who had been jailed for vagrancy, but when he arrived at the station, the police turned him and his clients over to the Ku Klux Klan, who took them to the Trinity River bottoms, severely beat the clients, stuck a revolver in Edwards’ ribs and warned him to “stay away from Commies.” Twenty rears later, at the age of 78, Edwards joined Thurgood Marshall in opposing the Texas Attorney General’s efforts to outlaw the NAACP in Texas.

A few years ago. 1 talked to George Clifton Edwards Jr.. then a federal judge in Ohio, who told me his father had been hounded by hatred and animosity all his life. While on his deathbed, someone called the house and said to “tell that old son-of-a-bitch I hope he dies and goes to hell.”

During Judge Edwards’ confirmation hearing, Sen. Sam Ervin grilled him about his father having been a card-carrying member of the Socialist Party. “I would say. Senator, that he was probably the best known Socialist in the state of Texas for most of his life,” he replied. “I might add, this was not a post for which there was keen competition.”

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