The Longest Filibuster in Texas: How Henry B. Gonzalez Killed Racial Segregation Bills

Henry B. Gonzalez filibustering against racial segregation bills in 1957
Henry B. Gonzalez filibustering in the Texas Senate against racial segregation bills in 1957.  (Photo courtesy of Charlie Gonzalez)

Charlie Gonzalez remembers his dad taking him to the Texas Legislature to watch when he was 12 years old. His dad, Texas Senator Henry B. Gonzalez, had already made history in 1956 by being the first Hispanic elected to the Texas Legislature.

But on May 2, 1957, Charlie got to watch from the gallery of the Texas Capitol as his dad made national news by leading a record-breaking filibuster that killed eight of 10 racial segregation bills. Henry B., as he was affectionately known in San Antonio, went on to serve 37 years in Congress and was succeeded by Charlie, who served until 2013.

Today, as the Texas Legislature is poised to consider legislation to curtail voting hours and limit local voting and mail-in ballot options - moves that would disproportionately affect voters of color - Charlie can’t stop thinking about how relevant that filibuster remains. 

"It goes back to where my father was,” Charlie said. “I think it’s all based on bigotry, prejudice, fear, and insecurity. I don’t understand why we haven’t overcome it,” he said in an interview with NOWCastSA.

(Watch full video of the interview here or click on a quote in this story to jump to that spot in the video.)

“The Legislature [had] a whole slate of bills that were proposed by the advisory council sworn by the previous governor who was going out of office, Allan Shivers,” Charlie recalled. “These were horrible bills designed to perpetuate inequality, segregation and discrimination.”

Defeating the bills took a grand act of stamina. Senator Abraham “Chick” Kazen of Laredo spoke for about 11 hours before giving the floor to Gonzalez. 

According to Texas Monthly, Gonzalez began his marathon speech saying, “I seek to register the plaintive cry, the hurt feelings, the silent, the dumb protest of the inarticulate.” 

Gonzalez then spoke for 22 hours without a break. Not even to go to the bathroom.

“The rules back then,” said Charlie, “were that  you couldn’t eat, you couldn’t drink anything and you couldn’t go to the restroom.”

Henry B’s words from the filibuster echo today. 

From Time magazine, May 13, 1957: “The assault on the inward dignity of man, which our society protects, has been made and this is an assault on the very idea of America, which began as a new land of hope. For whom does the bell toll? You, the white man, think it tolls for the negroes. I say the bell tolls for you. It is ringing for all of us.”

“And that was Dad’s point,” said Charlie. “This will be your demise if you continue this.” 

From the San Antonio Light’s account: “This type of legislation is in keeping with the old world and not the new world. I like equality, not third-class and first-class citizens. We have an old Spanish saying: ‘We are all children or all stepchildren of God.’ I believe we are all Americans.”

His opponents agreed to withdraw four of the ten bills if he would just stop talking, according to an account in the book, Contemporary Hispanic Biography.

Ultimately, Kazan and Gonzalez succeeded in killing 8 of the 10 bills aimed at circumventing the  U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated public schools.

Senators Henry B. Gonzalez and Abraham “Chick” Kazen of Laredo after the filibuster
Senators Henry B. Gonzalez and Abraham “Chick” Kazen of Laredo after their record-breaking 1957 filibuster to kill racial segregation bills in the Texas Senate. (Photo courtesy of Charlie Gonzalez)

Here are some of the bills they fought against:

  • House Bill 231, the Pupil Assignment Act, would allow school boards to assign and transfer students to different schools they deemed appropriate, therefore eliminating integration. According to Charlie, “it would be based on health, morals, psychology, and intelligence factors which would then allow segregation to continue.”
  • House Bill 232 exempted students from compulsory attendance at integrated schools. If a child’s parents disagreed with desegregation, they could withdraw their child from the integrated public school and have them attend a segregated school.
  • House Bill 233 would require local school boards to designate black and white students to separate schools at the beginning of the year and allow transfer if applied for within five days. Schools already integrated would not be affected.
  • House Bill 32 banned state employees from membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP. Any member of the NAACP would be automatically prohibited from employment by the State of Texas for as long as they maintained their membership with the NAACP.
  • House Bill 235 would allow the state to distribute grants to parents of a student attending private school the amount usually allocated for his education by the state. It would apply only when segregated public schooling is not available. 
  • House Bill 236 required the attorney general to defend all segregation questions against attacking lawsuits.
  • House Bill 239 required persons advocating segregation or integration in such a manner as to cause racial tensions to register with the Secretary of State. This bill was labeled unconstitutional because it violated freedom of speech and of the press.
  • House Bill 65, the Election Law, provided local option elections to determine whether public schools would mix white and black children or segregate them. It also prohibited future integration until approved by a majority during a school district election.
  • The Anti-Troop Bill allowed the governor or school boards to close schools for the safety of the children if state or federal troops occupied the campus.

Gonzalez earned respect from his colleagues and even from his ideological opponents, never backing down from a fight, even when the odds were against him. Gonzalez also never believed there was just a white issue, or an Hispanic issue, but instead, a people issue. 

He always said, ‘you will never gain any equality by separating yourself.’ His whole thing was inclusion, and it came under a lot of criticism, even from the Mexican-American communities,” said Charlie. “You don’t give up your heritage, your culture, your customs, but you have to become part of this country because there’s so many people that want to marginalize you.

Gonzalez always fought for the “small man” regardless of their race, income, or party affiliation, Charlie said. His ideology was to be the representative for all the people.

If you really care about your family, your country, your community, then you want to empower everybody in it,” said Charlie. “And to the day he died, that’s what he believed.“

Disclosure: Charlie Gonzalez is a financial supporter of NOWCastSA. Click here to see a complete list of individual donors to NOWCastSA.