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Texas House Speakers Oral History Project

The history of Texas has been shaped and influenced by some of the most dynamic, colorful and controversial elected officials. The Speaker of the Texas House, along with the governor and the lieutenant governor, ranks among the three most powerful officeholders in Texas politics, yet Speakers in the Texas House have enjoyed relatively limited visibility. Few Texans are fully aware of the office's significance. The most comprehensive collection on Speakers of the Texas House of Representatives is housed at the Briscoe Center for American History. The collection includes a rich primary archive and oral history collection of the individuals who have served as the presiding officer of the Texas House. From this collection, the conflicts and accomplishments that have faced lawmakers come to life in a firsthand account from House Speakers who have served from the 1950s to the current era.

From 2003 to 2005, the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History launched "A Speaker from Its Own Members: A Project Documenting the History of the Speakers of the Texas House of Representatives." Briscoe Center historians Dr. Patrick Cox and Dr. Michael Phillips interviewed then Speaker Tom Craddick and nine former Texas House Speakers: Reuben Senterfitt, Jim T. Lindsey, James "Jimmy" Turman, Ben Barnes, Gus Mutscher, Rayford Price, Bill Clayton, Gibson D. "Gib" Lewis, and Pete Laney. As documented in these interviews, the powers of Texas House Speakers expanded greatly following the expansion of the Texas economy in the aftermath of World War II.

From these interviews, Cox and Phillips authored The House Will Come to Order, How the Texas House Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics (University of Texas Press, 2010). In a state assumed to have a constitutionally weak governor, the Speaker of the Texas House wields enormous power, with the ability to almost single-handedly dictate the legislative agenda. The House Will Come to Order charts the evolution of the Speaker's role from a relatively obscure office to one of the most powerful in the state. This fascinating account, drawn from the Briscoe Center's oral history project on the former Speakers, is the story of transition, modernization, and power struggles. The publication is part of the Briscoe Center’s Focus on American History series, Dr. Don Carleton, Senior Editor.

The era covered by the project, from 1951 to the present, marks a particularly dramatic time in Texas history. In this era, Speakers reacted to the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the subsequent desegregation of Texas public schools. Speakers responded to the rise of the space industry and other modern technologies that transformed the economy of Texas. Speakers dealt with the state's explosive population growth following World War II even as they coped with a more complex economy and a rising demand for government services in education, transportation and health care. Speakers rose and fell with the rising fortunes of conservative and liberal factions within the Texas Democratic Party and with the ascendancy of the state Republican Party, culminating in the GOP's eventual capture of the state government in the 2000 elections. They also struggled with the Sharpstown political scandal, subsequent attempts to limit the power of the speaker's office, the failed effort to rewrite the state Constitution in the 1970s, a dramatic, quorum-breaking walkout from dissenting lawmakers who objected to a congressional redistricting bill in 2002, and the dramatic, unanticipated selection of Speaker Joe Straus to replace the embattled Speaker Tom Craddick in 2009.

The manuscripts of the collected oral histories are available to the public in the Center's Research & Collections Division. Readers will learn not only how modern Texas evolved beginning in the mid-twentieth century, but also the motives, reactions, celebrations, regrets, and fears of those most involved in the state's tumultuous political upheavals in the last half-century.