John Ben Shepperd: Levelland Chamber of Commerce
February 21, 1957
Chamber of Commerce Banquet (Levelland, Texas)
I do want to think with you briefly of a few matters of vital Importance to Texas and Texans.
I know that you were happy to see the democratic processes restored to the people of Duval County last year after a long, hard, bitter fight of six years duration. There were over four hundred legal actions in and out of practically every state and federal court. I thought you might be interested in a brief report of conditions there now.
We have stopped the stealing and killing in Duval County. Public meetings are now open and by the way, better attended—I dare say—than in any other county in the state. The budgets and official actions of local government agencies are now matters of public record.
George Parr, the Duke of Duval, no longer controls all the public officials and they are now performing their duties according to law and not according to Parr.
The hundreds of gun-toting “deputies” are gone. The Commissioners’ Court and the School Board no longer take orders from Parr. He doesn’t sign the checks anymore or keep the records. There’s no more easy money, no handouts, no payoffs.
County officials don’t charge their personal household expenses, medical bills or gasoline to the County any more. They don’t carry their daughters on the payroll as teachers while they’re away at college. They don’t get their deer rifles at County expense or charge their kids’ cough medicine and castor oil to the School District. Yes, things are different in Duval.
They’re different for Parr too. His two banks, depositories of County and School funds, long ago were taken out of his hands, closed down by the State. His 55,000 acre ranch, bought with County funds, has gone back to the County and another 4,000 acre hacienda was auctioned off by the authorities to satisfy tax claims against the Duke.
The Duval County tax rate has been reduced from the highest in the state to one of the lowest. Election coats have been reduced ninety percent and the number of voters almost doubled. People there are now getting roads and other services for their money instead of shrugged shoulders and blank faces.
Parr has been found guilty of stealing money from the school kids and given five years. This was his fourth conviction. He has been declared a bankrupt by a federal court. The former District Attorney, the former Tax Collector of the rich Benavides School District, the former County School Superintendent and five lessor [sic] officials have been convicted. Over seventy other officials resigned under fire.
Why did I mention Duval County? Because it’s still possible under antiquated Texas laws to have a reoccurence [sic] of the sordid and sorry mess that has taken place in Duval County.
A large number of our laws were predicated in the 1850’s. What can we do about these laws? Two years ago the Texas Press Association and I prepared legislation that we called “Open Door to Good Government Bill”. We didn’t get any passed, but we are trying again this session. They are worthy of your support.
Here is what these bills would do: a law providing indictment outside the county of anyone accused of misusing or embezzling public funds or of destroying, defacing, altering or hiding public records; removal of officeholders who refuse to reveal public records or who stand on the Fifth Amendment and refuse to answer questions about their conduct of office; a statute permitting the County or District Attorney to sue for recovery of funds due the county without authorization of the Commissioners’ Court in cases where the Commissioners’ Court is suspected of misappropriations; a constitutional workable mandatory publications act which would require publication of annual financial statements of all offices, boards, agencies and commissions on all levels of government; a law providing for a special audit to be ordered by the District Judge on the petition of at least thirty percent of the voters of the county; a law requiring publication of the full text of city ordinances; an anti-secrecy bill that would prohibit closed and secret sessions of government bodies from the state capitol to the county precincts; a clear, positive law requiring that all state, county and municipal records shall at all times be open for personal inspection of any citizen and those in charge of such records shall not have the right to refuse this privilege to any citizen.
If an aroused citizenry will get behind these bills and see that they are enacted into law, it will be impossible for a small group of crooked men to usurp civil liberties and to gain riches at the expense of the taxpayer in any county or city in Texas!
There is another struggle going on in the courthouses, the state and national capitols that is also worthy of your support and study. That is the battle being waged between the states and the federal government.
Those of us who are still old-fashioned enough to believe in local autonomy and constitutional government as set forth by the founding fathers in 1787 are being plagued by a power-greedy federal government which through bureaucratic edict is snapping up powers from the states with reckless abandon. We are balked even more by a United States Supreme Court which takes away powers from the states which even the federal government doesn’t want. We firmly believe that this Court has superimposed its own political theory over our constitutional law and that unless something is done, state lines will soon be erased.
No, states rights must never be a lost cause and we must never stand idly by and see this country lose its freedom in the name of so-called “progress”.
And where do these things lead us? Why right back to ourselves. We know—if we would only be honest—that federal encroachment couldn’t gallop so fast if there were not considerable backing down on the local level. And that the Constitution wouldn’t be so badly abused in Washington if there weren’t so little use of it at home. What do we need to get things back in proper proportion?
We need leaders who will put courage into state and local governments by serving in office and executing policies consistent with our basic beliefs. We need business men who can use their heads to find ways of developing local resources and financing local improvements without depending on the federal government for help. When leadership in state and local government breaks down, the people are forced to vote for prosperity instead of working for it.
Too many would-be leaders will assume leadership only within the safe boundaries of non-partisan and non-controversial fields and refuse to get mixed up in politics because they think it will hurt business or antagonize the boss. Show me a man with no identifiable stand on a clear-cut issue and I’ll show you a man with no identifiable character, patriotism or value to his community.
We need men who will speak out for private enterprise. A silent voice in the ranks of business is a shout for socialism or worse and a negative business man is almost as bad as a positive Communist. We need bankers who will be quick to give loans to young people just getting started and we need young people who won’t be satisfied with extra benefits and guaranteed income, but who value the freedom to excel on their own. If more people today were spitting on their hands instead of their employers, the country would be a lot better off.
And what about followship? It takes a heap of living to make a house a home and it takes a heap of good citizenship to make freedom live. Where does freedom die?
Freedom dies in the path over which men and women no longer walk to the polls. It dies on the courthouse lawn where they no longer attend political rallies. It expires on the concrete steps of the schoolhouse where the feet of grown people never tread. It perishes in church pews that are never filled and in homes where half the family is just sitting around waiting for the other half to get back with the car. Freedom dies wherever people are too stiff-necked to bow their heads and too weak-kneed to walk the straight line of responsibility.
We need a lot of men and women who are sold on basic American principles. We need men and women who won’t sacrifice a dot or a dash in the Constitution to get a dollar sign on their personal ledger, who can take the ups and downs of life without becoming so concerned with the left and the right that they forget the above and below. We need men and women who’d rather be right than be rich, who’d rather be fair than be famous, who’d rather be honest than be exalted, who’d rather be good than be clever, who’d rather be free than be secure and who’d rather die on their feet than see their fellow Texans living on their knees.
Are these old truisms too dreamy and idealistic? Will they work in 1957?
Let’s stop and take stock and see if we need idealistic dreamers who recognize the need for a knowledge, love and devotion of the past. In my humble opinion, this nation needs such idealistic dreamers today more than ever before in our history! We need them as long as there are closed doors in public office, public meetings held in secret and public files marked confidential. We need them as long as there are antiquated, harmful laws on the statute books, remaining there only because they suit somebody’s political or financial convenience, and as long as there are loopholes in the law, left there by lawyer-legislators for the benefit of their private practice.
We need idealists as long as we live under big, bloated governments feeding on the lassitude of a citizenry that wants everybody to have a benefit at everybody else’s expense. We need them as long as this nation is trying to live high on money borrowed from our children’s unborn children. We need idealistic, courageous men and women as long as we have judges who cannot or will not lay aside their politics when they put on the judicial robes.
Yea, we need idealistic dreamers as long as we have people in this country who believe that the best things in life can either be bought with money or voted into existence. We idealistic dreamers must constantly remind them that nobody can go down to the bank and file away a title to a West Texas Sunset. Nobody can lay gold on the counter and purchase cherished friendships nor can we purchase at any price the love and companionship of a loyal wife or husband. And all the dazzling wealth of the universe is not half so beautiful as the sound of a mother’s lullaby of the laughter of a strong, free man.
Because freedom is old, not young; yet it is born anew in the first cry of a free man’s son;
It is not a living thing, yet it dies if we do not love it;
It is not weak, but strong, yet it must be defended;
It is light, yet it weighs heavy on him who is without it;
It is without price, yet it dearly costs the one who sells it;
It is not small, but great; yet once lost, it is never, never found again.
Yes to be born free is an accident;
To live free is a responsibility;
But to die free is an obligation.
[Note: The views expressed in this speech were those of John Ben Shepperd, and do not necessarily represent the views of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute or the University of Texas Permian Basin.]