Congressman Homer Thornberry visiting constituents in Oakalla in 1951. Contributed by Thornberry family

Homer Thornberry: Austin’s congressman, judge and Supreme Court nominee

Feb 01, 2017

By Michael Barnes
February 1, 2017

This story was originally published in the Austin American-Statesman.

A grandson writes a biography about the only native Austinite nominated for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

With all the talk about current and future openings on the highest court in the land, did you know that exactly one native Austinite was nominated for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court?

And not that long ago, historically speaking.

In 1968, during a time of enormous social friction, President Lyndon Baines Johnson wanted to promote Associate Justice Abe Fortas, a Tennessean, to replace Earl Warren as Chief Justice. To take Fortas' spot, LBJ nominated Homer Thornberry, a South Austin native, University of Texas graduate and former close political ally of the president.

Twenty years earlier, Thornberry had been elected U.S. representative from the 10th Congressional District when LBJ — who held the seat before him — was elevated by voters to the U.S Senate. Thornberry loyally served the Austin area in that capacity for 15 years. In 1963, LBJ twisted his arm to serve on the U.S. District Court for Western Texas.

"We hated to see him leave the legislative halls," President Johnson said when Thornberry was sworn in as a judge on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals — one step below the Supreme Court — at the LBJ Ranch in 1965. "But we are glad to see him preside in the temples of justice, because we know that there is no more courageous person, not a better and finer human being, and no man with a greater sense of justice and fairness and feeling of equality for all human beings, wherever they live, whatever their color, or whatever their religion, than Homer Thornberry."

A grandson's project

Handsome and charismatic, Thornberry (1909-1995) was the son of deaf parents who taught at the Texas School for the Deaf. He learned to talk from a neighbor.

And he never made it onto the highest court.

Facing a filibuster in the U.S. Senate, Fortas withdrew his name from contention for chief justice, which nullified Thornberry's nomination. He remained on the powerful Court of Appeals until 1978, when he took "senior" status.

We were reminded of all this history recently because his grandson, Homer Ross Tomlin, has published a much-needed biography, "Homer Thornberry: Congressman, Judge and Advocate for Equal Rights." In addition, Tomlin has joined Austin's informal speaking circuit, reminding folks of the complicated soul sandwiched between two better-known personalities — LBJ and J.J. "Jake" Pickle — as our man in Congress.

Tomlin, 38, grew up in the Houston area and attended UT. He now works as a policy analyst in Austin. His mother, Kate Thornberry Hill, died in 2013.

"This was her idea," he says of the book. "Sadly, she didn't live to see it done. She was the youngest of three and the only one of the three to have children. So my brother, Dalton, and I are Homer Thornberry's only grandchildren."

Not trained as a historian, Tomlin has been working on the subject for a while. Back in 1998, he needed a topic for his Plan II (honors) thesis at UT. Why not his famous grandfather?

"I thought it was preposterous," he recalls. "But it seemed like a good enough idea for a thesis, in part because I didn't have any better idea. I never thought it would get to be a book."

At first, Tomlin didn't think the subject would merit the 30-page minimum for the assignment, or the 60-page goal for a two-semester project. It ended up at 110 pages. The book, published last year by TCU Press, comes in at more than 200 pages.

"I kept finding more primary sources," he says. "The LBJ Presidential Library had a number linear feet of material on him already. We also had a family collection of boxes from his congressional days. I interviewed family members and former colleagues and found a treasure trove of material, far more than I had imagined."

When Tomlin graduated from UT, he thought he was onto something: The historical memory of his grandfather was quickly fading.

"There was a void," he says. "So I took it upon myself to correct that. I had no idea what I was doing, so I took the trial-and-error approach. Jake Pickle — who wrote the introduction — was getting up there in age, and Lady Bird Johnson was alive. But Lady Bird couldn't trust her memory. Jake came through in grand style. (Former Speaker of the House) Jim Wright, too." All three are now deceased.

Once he completed a first draft, getting it published was no easy matter. University presses, the natural option, maintain high, sometimes opaque standards. He hoped for interest from UT Press, since Thornberry was a devoted supporter of his alma mater and a winner of the school's Distinguished Alumnus Award.

"They weren't interested in the subject matter," he says with a sigh. "Bummer. But TCU was interested. Meanwhile, I learned the hard way that I had approached the project in entirely the wrong way. It was mostly research. I didn't have a strong thesis or enough in-depth analysis."

A stint at the LBJ School of Public Affairs gave him the scholarly tools and advice he needed.

"I started over from scratch," Tomlin says. "Nothing was salvageable except the research."

Reading into Thornberry

It is complicated: The would-be Supreme Court justice — who also served in the Texas House of Representatives and as Travis County district attorney — was a man of humble origins who later stood beside Johnson, advising the most powerful man in the world, for 24 hours after President John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas.

Always sympathetic with the poor — having grown up dirt-poor himself — Thornberry grew up in the Jim Crow South and tacitly supported segregation along with his Southern colleagues in Congress during the 1940s and early '50s. Later, however, he became an eloquent champion of civil rights during the contentious time of school desegregation while serving on the critical Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in the 1960s and '70s.

Did Tomlin come to the project with special insights into these apparent contradictions?

"He died when I was a senior in high school," he says. "He was old when he had my mother, so he was in his 70s when I first became conscious of who he was. It took me a long time to understand his historical importance, that he was a personal friend of LBJ and Sam Rayburn. I didn't put it together until later: My grandpa was a really important guy."

While in fourth grade, Tomlin ran across a passage in a book about how Johnson had consulted Thornberry about whether to accept Kennedy's offer of the vice presidential slot on the 1960 Democratic ticket.

"I got my grandpa on the phone, and I was reading it to him verbatim," Tomlin says with a smile. "As if he hadn't heard it before. He stopped me and told me the rest of the story."

One of the most contentious topics in his book is his grandfather's evolving record on race.

"It's incredibly hard to wrap your mind around institutional racism," Tomlin says. "My grandfather continued to live in this environment, in a position to do something about it, but for a long time didn't. It's very hard to reconcile."

Tomlin says his grandfather was raised to believe that African-Americans were inferior.

"Southerners used words that now are clearly racial slurs," he says, although he found no evidence that his grandfather used racial epithets or otherwise personally mistreated minorities. "He always had the potential for an open mind. It didn't show up early in his — or Johnson's — public lives. When the pendulum began to move on the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Johnson led the way toward reform among his crowd, persuaded Rayburn, and Rayburn persuaded my grandfather."

Thornberry, who, like LBJ and Pickle, prided himself on constituent services, often told a personal story about how to look beyond the consensus leaders in communities of color.

"He was campaigning door to door and stopped at a black-owned barbershop," Tomlin says. "He spoke to the barbers, but ignored the shoeshine. He was about to leave when somebody pointed out: ‘That young fellow has more of a finger on the pulse of the community than others in the black community.' He still had an embedded mentality that this was a separate caste. He had to take the extra step toward empathizing with the average black citizen."

Johnson's selection of Thornberry for the Supreme Court promised to be historic, not least because the president's civil rights agenda was under challenge in the courts. Only one Texan, Tom Clark, had ever served on the highest court, sitting from 1949 to 1967. In 2005, President George W. Bush nominated his trusted friend, Dallas-based Harriet Miers, who came with no judicial experience, but the offer was quickly withdrawn.

The most frustrating part of this book — for the author as well as for the reader — is the blank space where one wants to hear Thornberry's account of those 24 hours at Johnson's side after Kennedy's assassination.

"My grandfather died before this became a thing," Tomlin says about his biographical project. "If I knew, it would be in there!"