In Memory of Bob Eckhardt: 1913-2001

A fighter for justice is remembered by family and friends.

Bob Eckhardt gazes at his granddaughters, Rebecca holding Summer, in 1987.
Bob Eckhardt gazes at his granddaughters, Rebecca holding Summer, in 1987. (Photo By Alan Pogue)

"He held us together and gave us courage at a very dark time," said Maury Maverick of his friend and colleague Bob Eckhardt, who died Nov. 13 of a cerebral stroke. Before he was elected to the state House in 1958, Eckhardt -- then one of the first labor lawyers in Texas -- would travel from Houston to consult with the handful of progressive Texas House members during "the worst period of the McCarthy era."

"He was an inspiration to us at a lonely time," said Maverick, himself a House member during the Legislature's period of anti-Communist hysteria, when they declared even membership in the Communist Party a capital offense.

Eckhardt's familial obituary gracefully sums up his House career: "Eckhardt was one of the last of a breed of brilliant and eloquent populist politicians who often found themselves in the minority on a variety of issues at the Texas State House. His generation of young liberal politicians essentially wrote the book on effective liberal minority obstructionist politics within a conservative legislative body. He and his House and Senate colleagues were allied throughout many important mid-century controversies, including early civil rights legislative struggles, McCarthy-era red-baiting, and nascent environmental efforts in Texas. Eckhardt's greatest achievements in his four terms in the State House were passage of the 1959 Open Beaches Bill and a 1961 bill that taxed gas pipelines for the first time. He fought to curtail oyster bed shell dredging, to protect the Big Thicket from lumber company interests, and to contain the powerful Texas oil lobby."

Eckhardt became a seven-term U.S. Rep. from Houston (1967--1981), one of the Democratic Study Group Six who opposed fellow Texan Lyndon B. Johnson's steady escalation of the Vietnam War, and the only member of the Texas delegation to consistently call for a unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam. He sponsored and passed the War Powers Act -- a still-unsuccessful attempt to force the executive branch to consult Congress, as required by law, before declaring war. In recent years, Eckhardt had been working on a book titled Who Determines War?, in which he analyzed the use and abuse of the War Powers Act by subsequent U.S. Presidents: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. At the time of his death, he was studying the current Bush administration's indifference to constitutional issues of war and peace.

At Eckhardt's funeral Nov. 17, writer Molly Ivins, Rep. Lloyd Doggett, and AFL-CIO President Joe Gunn, among many others, eulogized the man Gunn remembered as having fought heroically for Texas working people, of having always defended the principle that "dignity is a right, not a privilege." Eckhardt was most movingly remembered by his daughter Sarah, who said, "I expected the world to stop when my father died, but it didn't." Sarah recalled her father's final days, and said, "He taught us how to die. But it is one thing to die with dignity, it is another to have lived with dignity. ... My father taught us how to live."

He came by his honest and unwavering democratic principles directly, says Maverick, as a descendant of some of the earliest Hill Country German settlers in Travis and Bexar Counties. "He was proud of his German ancestors," said Maverick. "They were freethinkers who were against war, and opposed slavery. We talked about that a lot." Summing up his friend and his spirit, Maverick said, "He belongs in the company of Sam Houston."

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