TEXAS HISTORY MINUTE: Henry B. Gonzalez, first Hispanic man elected to Texas Congress
Henry B. Gonzalez had a long and controversial career as a Texas politician. He was the first Hispanic elected to Congress from Texas and was never afraid to speak his mind on the issues.
Gonzalez was born to immigrant parents in San Antonio in 1916. His parents arrived in Texas, fleeing the violence of the Mexican Revolution. His father rose to become an editor of a local Spanish-language newspaper and started a successful translation service.
Gonzalez graduated from San Antonio Junior College in 1937 and briefly attended the University of Texas. While he attended college, he married Bertha Cuellar, and the two had eight children together. He completed his bachelors degree at St. Mary’s University in Austin where he also earned a law degree by 1943.
After graduation, he briefly worked as a probation officer, quickly rising to lead the Bexar County office. He also worked as a teacher for a short period. In 1952, he was elected to the San Antonio city council where he pushed to end segregation at city parks and swimming pools.
He soon aimed for higher office. In 1956, he was elected to the state senate. While a state senator, he became an outspoken defender of civil rights as he filibustered a bill that would have allowed the state to close schools that faced any disturbances related to racial integration and defeated other bills attempting to enforce segregation. In 1958, Gonzalez ran for governor, losing the primary but winning re-election to the state senate in 1960. In 1961, after Lyndon B. Johnson became vice-president, Gonzalez ran for his open U. S. Senate seat. In a field of fifty candidates, he placed sixth statewide with 9% of the vote, carrying Bexar County.
Later that year, San Antonio’s longtime congressman, Paul Kilday, resigned in order to take a position on the Court of Military Appeals. Gonzalez quickly jumped into the race to fill the remainder of the term. In a hard-fought election, Gonzalez prevailed with 55% of the vote.
He went to work immediately. On the same day he was sworn into office, he filed a bill banning the poll tax, through which many states required citizens to pay to exercise their right to vote. The poll tax was banned by the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, which was ratified in 1964. He continued to be an outspoken advocate of the civil rights acts of the 1960s as well as federal funding for education and anti-poverty programs.
One of his most well-publicized actions was his service as chairman of the Select Committee on Assassination in 1977. This committee was pushed by Gonzalez in 1976 to study the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Behind the scenes, the committee quickly erupted into acrimony over disputes stemming from investigative techniques, committee procedures, and even the budget. Gonzalez himself had been in the motorcade in Dallas in 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated. He resigned from the committee within a few months, while the committee ultimately concluded that no conspiracy was apparent with the murders.
His harsh criticisms of political opponents did not win him many allies at the Capitol, but he eventually became the chairman of the House Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs Committee in 1989. Here, he advocated banking reforms to make it easier for the working poor to afford their own homes. He criticized deregulation attempts that resulted in the collapse of the savings and loan industry in the late 1980s which ultimately cost taxpayers more than $1 trillion. He chaired the committee until 1994.
In 1998, as his health failed, he announced his retirement. His son, Charlie Gonzalez, won the race to succeed him. He died on November 8, 2000, but has since been widely honored for his service to Texas and the nation as the convention center in San Antonio was named for him in addition to four different elementary schools across the state, including in Dallas and Eagle Pass.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.