COVER: Delegates to the 1928 Democratic National Convention in Houston nominated New York Gov. Al Smith — hailed as the “The Happy Warrior” — for President. But the city and state got a black eye when lynch mob killed a suspected murder less than a week before the big event. PHOTO VIA U.S. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
Five months earlier, Democratic leaders picked the Bayou City as the site for their quadrennial get-together, the first meeting of its kind in a southern state since the Civil War. Credit went to businessman Jesse Jones, national finance chairman, whose expert string-pulling made his hometown of 250,000 the winning entry.
Arguing that the antiquated auditorium was inadequate for the grand affair, Jones demanded new accommodations for the expected multitude. Sam Houston Coliseum was constructed in a record two months at the stupendous price of $200,000.
Only six days before the convention was called to order, a gang of vigilantes dragged a suspected cop killer from his hospital bed in the middle of the night. At sunrise the grisly evidence of the first lynching in Harris County in more than a half century caused many out-of-town visitors and locals as well to skip breakfast.
The sordid incident cast a pall over final preparations for the Democratic convention. That afternoon The Chronicle solemnly editorialized, “Houston has been shamed before the nation. This revolting crime which has been committed in our midst comes to blacken the day of our pride and joy.”
Leaving no stone unturned, authorities quickly tracked down the perpetrators. Four days later, half a dozen dazed youths were under lock and key for the lynching. The swift apprehension went far toward salvaging the city’s sullied reputation.
With their last victory in a presidential race dating back a dozen years, Democrats were intent on ending their long losing streak. All that stood between them and the White House was Republican standard bearer Herbert Hoover.
Gov. Al Smith of New York clearly had the inside track for the nomination, the prize that eluded him four years earlier. However, “The Happy Warrior” was considered soft on prohibition, an unpalatable position for many party faithful, especially hard-core “drys” from Dixie.
Another issue, equally as emotional but rarely raised in polite conversation, was religion. Smith was a Roman Catholic, and no American of that faith had ever vied for the nation’s highest office.
Dan Moody, the 35 year old Texas governor, predicted disaster in November if his eastern counterpart topped the ticket. Hours before the opening session of the convention, he announced a drive for a dry platform and ominously warned, “The Democratic Party must not write an overdraft on the loyalty of the South.”
Twenty-five thousand spectators squeezed into the sparkling new arena on Jun. 26. Press and public anticipated plenty of political pyrotechnics, and they did not have long to wait for the fireworks.
Proceedings were interrupted the next day by a wild melee on the convention floor. An attempt by Smith supporters to spirit away the standards of several southern delegations triggered a bloody brawl. A flying wedge of blackjack swinging policemen finally subdued the well-dressed combatants.
The fisticuffs were considered just good, clean fun by many participants. An amused reporter wrote, “Alabama delegates were smiling proudly over their success in holding their banner against the invaders.”
The bid by the anti-Smith faction to block an early nomination must have caused veterans of the 1920 San Francisco marathon to wince. Forty-four votes were taken at that convention before the Democrats settled on James M. Cox, who was pulverized at the polls by Warren G. Harding.
In spite of scattered opposition, Smith won going away on the initial ballot. Hoping Jones or Moody might get the nod as his running mate, the selection of an Arkansas senator for vice-president deeply disappointed Texas Democrats.
In his acceptance telegram, Al Smith vaguely hinted at “fundamental changes” in the prohibition laws, an heretical suggestion the bone-dry camp interpreted as a deliberate slap in the face. Dixie delegates left Houston in a downright ugly mood.
In the 82 years since entering the Union, the Lone Star electorate had never backed a Republican for the Oval Office. Even a lackluster loser like Democrat John W. Davis carried the state nearly four to one against Calvin Coolidge in 1924.
But in the fall of 1928 Al Smith lost Texas by 26,000 votes. In an epic Republican landslide, Herbert Hoover won 40 of the 48 states including Smith’s very own New York.
GOP pickings were slim in Texas for the next 24 years. Even though a growing number of Democratic regulars turned against the New Deal, Franklin D. Roosevelt never received less than 71 percent of the popular vote.
Then came the presidential election of 1952, which started the stampede to the Republican Party in the Lone Star State.
Syndicated columnist BARTEE HAILE has written about Texas history for the San Marcos Mercury since 2011. Haile welcomes your comments or questions by mail at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.