University of Texas Press
Hardcover (also available as an e-book), 978-1-4773-1036-6, 392 pgs., $29.95
May 4, 2021
Texas today is a global giant. Its economy outshines those of many nations, including Russia. Yet this engaging new work by veteran author, journalist, and historian Bill Minutaglio spotlights how the state’s current approaches to politics and race continue to echo with frontier bluster and cultural attitudes carried forward since the nineteenth century.
Soon after Texas emerged from the Civil War, Minutaglio contends, several new impulses began taking root, including “to always insist on letting Texas pursue its own path—federal or centralized control be damned—and to cling, in either subtle or glaring fashion, to many of the core principles of the Confederacy.”
He adds: “It was true in 1870, as the modern Texas political system was born, and it remains true today: the process of governance in Texas has been defined by who and what can be conquered, extracted, owned, and built.” Those tendencies are not exclusive to Texas, he concedes, but the former republic has pushed them “in especially spectacular, unbridled, and sometimes unhinged and bloody ways.”
A Single Star and Bloody Knuckles: A History of Politics and Race in Texas traces a decade-by-decade trajectory from 1870 to 2021, illuminating lawmakers’ cozy relationships with wealthy donors, petroleum, and big business, as well as the state’s troubled and sometimes violent interplays with race, immigration, and labor. The book’s title reflects Texas-born Vice President John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner’s famous quote about politics having just one simple rule: “You’ve got to bloody your knuckles.”
The author draws from extensive historical research, as well as four decades of writing for Texas newspapers and authoring books that deal with Texas history, politics, and racial issues. In this book he makes a refreshing choice: he scales back coverage of several familiar historical figures so some lesser known, yet historically important Texans can be highlighted.
For example, Annie Blanton, a North Texas English professor, faced vicious smear campaigns in 1918 while running for state superintendent of public instruction “against entrenched incumbents and political professionals.” However, women that year had just been granted the right to vote in state primaries. They helped Annie Blanton become “the first woman elected to statewide office in Texas.” Lulu Belle Madison White, whose father had been a slave, was an important figure behind a 1944 US Supreme Court ruling outlawing “whites only” election primaries. She also spearheaded the lawsuit that opened the University of Texas to Black students.
Meanwhile, musician and author Richard “Kinky” Friedman has never gotten elected to any state office, despite multiple tries. But he has declared: “Politics is the only field in which the more experience you have, the worse you get.”
The ongoing worldwide coronavirus crisis has displayed “the enduring political soul of Texas . . . in stark, naked fashion,” Minutaglio says. Many state and local government officials pushed back against federal mask mandates and shutdown orders. Texas Governor Greg Abbott defiantly declared, “We are Texans. We got this.” But the microscopic virus quickly showed it was bigger than anyone’s go-it-alone braggadocio. “By summer , Texas was making international news as an epicenter for the pandemic.”
A Single Star and Bloody Knuckles is a noteworthy, timely, and well-written addition to the continuing debates over politics and race in Texas.
Bill Minutaglio is the author of several nonfiction books, including the first biography of George W. Bush, an account of the greatest industrial disaster in US history, and biographies of former attorney general Alberto Gonzales and writer Molly Ivins. He received a PEN Center Award for his coauthored book Dallas 1963, a chronicle of the events preceding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His work has also been honored by the National Association of Black Journalists, and he was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters.
Minutaglio is a former clinical professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and reporter, columnist, and editor for the three largest newspapers in Texas. A former columnist for the Texas Observer, his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Esquire, Newsweek, the Washington Post, Texas Monthly, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, among other publications.