LBJ Carried Poor Texas Town With Him In Civil Rights Fight

Apr 11, 2014
Originally published on April 11, 2014 10:34 pm

Today Cotulla, Texas, is reaping the benefits of an oil and natural gas boom in the Eagle Ford Shale. But in 1928, the South Texas town was incredibly poor — and that's how Lyndon Johnson saw it when he had his first job there at age 20.

Long before he was president, Johnson spent a year teaching at what was known as the "Mexican school." The students were so poor, he later recalled seeing "Mexican children going through a garbage pile, shaking the coffee grounds from the grapefruit rinds and sucking the rinds for the juice that was left." Johnson used his own salary to buy volleyballs and softball bats.

Even as he later forged his civil rights legacy, he always remembered the grinding poverty of his students. He returned to Cotulla 38 years later, as president, to honor National Education Week and spoke at the same school where he used to teach.

"The children of Mexican-Americans have been taught that the end of life is a beet row, or a spinach field, or a cotton patch. So to their parents throughout the land this afternoon, we say, help us lift the eyes of our children to a greater vision of what they can do with their lives," he said.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

I keep looking at a black and white photo from 1928. It shows three rows of school children - some of them in overalls, their dark hair parted smooth. In the back row stands a tall man with familiar imposing brow. It's Lyndon Johnson at age 20. He was teaching for a year at a grade school in a tiny dirt-poor town in south Texas. It was known as the Mexican school. Johnson took his own salary and bought the kids volleyballs, softball bats. He started a debate team, led songs, swept the floors.

Yesterday, when President Obama spoke about Lyndon Johnson and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, he talked about how Johnson's time at that school changed him. There, Obama said, Johnson learned how race exacerbated the persistent pain of poverty.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Oftentimes, his students would show up to class hungry. And when he'd visit their homes, he'd meet fathers who were paid slave wages by the farmers they worked for. Those children were taught, he would later say, that the end of life is in a beet row, a spinach field, or cotton patch.


BLOCK: That's President Johnson in 1966. He went back to give a speech at that Mexican school, the Welhausen School in Cotulla, Texas, 38 years after he taught there.

LEODORO MARTINEZ: This is the Welhausen School. This is it right here. And where he taught is right there at this classroom in there.

BLOCK: Right next door.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, right there.

BLOCK: The Welhausen School is used as a church now - a low, red brick building with just a simple plaque outside marking its place in history. I was in Cotulla on a reporting trip last month and I talked with community leader Leodoro Martinez. He told me he grew up in the barrio, the wrong side of the tracks, in this mostly Hispanic town. And he was there in that school auditorium in 1966, a high school senior, when President Johnson came back to Cotulla for a speech to honor national education week.

MARTINEZ: And he was himself that day. He was totally himself. He was - you could see he was very happy to be here.


MARTINEZ: There was people hanging through the windows and - where we're sitting right now, all this was just crowded with people that couldn't get into the auditorium.


BLOCK: Cotulla, Texas, in 1928 was so poor, Johnson later recalled seeing Mexican children going through a garbage pile, shaking the coffee grounds from the grapefruit rinds and sucking the rinds for the juice that was left. Decades later, on his visit back, Johnson said the country was still paying the price for poverty and prejudice.


BLOCK: You can hear President Johnson pounding the lectern as he demanded change.


BLOCK: And Johnson said he would not be satisfied...


MARTINEZ: That's exactly what would happen. We wake up at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning and you could hear the trucks moving around in barrio, and you can smell the smell of tortilla, making breakfast and lunch for the day. And, yeah, and kids were jumping on - we were jumping on trucks to go work in the fields.

BLOCK: Martinez grew up to become a three-term mayor of Cotulla, Texas, and a county judge. Makes you wonder, what would LBJ think if he saw Cotulla now, where the local leaders are named Garcia, Rodriguez and Leodoro Martinez? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.