Lewis Lapham once said of the late Molly Ivins, “She reminds us that dissent is what rescues democracy from a quiet death behind closed doors.”
Before Ivins became a nationally syndicated columnist and earned a reputation for her stalwart defenses of civil rights, civil liberties, and common sense, she served for a number of years in the 1970s as the editor of the Texas Observer. Since its founding in 1954, that bimonthly magazine has maintained a fierce commitment “to cover stories crucial to the public interest and to provoke dialogue that promotes democratic participation and open government, in pursuit of a vision of Texas where education, justice and material progress are available to all.”
On Monday, however, staffers learned that, due to financial challenges, the board of the nonprofit Texas Democracy Foundation, which publishes the Observer, had voted to at least temporarily cease publication. The move threatens the livelihoods of 17 Observer employees, including 13 journalists—no small matter at a time when states like Texas need crusading reporters and editors more than ever. But that’s just a part of what will be lost if the Observer is buried in the ever-expanding graveyard of alternative publications.
For the better part of 70 years, the Observer has been not just the voice but a part of the connecting tissue of Texas liberalism.
This was the publication that covered and championed civil rights and labor organizing in the the 1950s and ’60s. It defended the lonely refusal of Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough to embrace the racist “Southern Manifesto,” along with Yarborough’s votes for the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, 1964 and 1968, and his opposition to the Vietnam War. It may be hard to imagine the days when Texas had a liberal senator. Or that it had in the 1990s a liberal governor, Ann Richards, who appointed women and people of color to top jobs, fought to fund public education, and to reform the state’s notorious prison system. Or that progressive populist Jim Hightower once defended family farmers and migrant farmworkers as the state’s elected agriculture commissioner.
But Texas is Texas. So the victories for liberals have been sporadic. There was a long dry spell between the defeat of Yarborough in a 1970 Democratic primary and the election of Hightower as agriculture commissioner and Richards as state treasurer in 1982—victories that got the ball rolling for Richards’s election as governor in 1990. There was an even longer dry spell between Richards’s loss to George W. Bush in 1994, and the signs of renewal of Democratic prospects that came with Beto O’Rourke’s competitive challenge to Republican Senator Ted Cruz in 2018. Through it all, the Observer has kept the faith. Proudly focused on Texas, its crusading coverage of the state remained true to its founding mission statement:
We will serve no group or party but will hew hard to the truth as we find it and the right as we see it. We are dedicated to the whole truth, to human values above all interests, to the rights of humankind as the foundation of democracy. We will take orders from none but our own conscience, and never will we overlook or misrepresent the truth to serve the interests of the powerful or cater to the ignoble in the human spirit.
The Observer has inspired liberals—not just in Austin and San Antonio but also in Waco and Tyler, Kerrville, and Amarillo. Over the years, it has given them hope by providing reminders of the breakthroughs that kept occurring, as it did just a week ago with a story of a grassroots political upheaval with the headline “This Burned-Out Texas Teacher Unseated His School Board President” and teaser “The Texas public school system almost broke Andrew Gonzales’ spirit. Then he won a leadership role in Austin Independent School District.” And it has reminded readers that the fight is still on for reproductive rights, public education, and immigrant rights.
Progressive Texans have known about these struggles, and carried them forward, with insights and steady encouragement from the Observer. Generations of Texans have come to cherish the publication, which has fought the good fight. I got a sense of that a few years ago, when I was the master of ceremonies for the magazine’s big annual gathering in Austin. The room was packed with hundreds of people, members of Congress, legislators, retirees, students, small-business owners, union organizers, and community activists who had driven, sometimes for hours, to be part of an event that felt like a family gathering.
That sense of connection is not something Texas can afford to lose. That’s why current and former staffers at the Observer—as heirs to the Texas liberal tradition of good troublemaking and relentless rabble rousing, and of the never-surrender ethic of Molly Ivins, Ronnie Dugger, Kaye Northcott, and Jim Hightower—are refusing to let this great publication go down without a fight. They’ve urged the board to reconsider its vote. A former Observer staffer has launched a GoFundMe page to raise money to keep the magazine alive. By publication time, the campaign had met its fundraising goal of $250,000 with donations from more than 3,400 folks from across Texas and beyond who have given what they can. But it shouldn’t stop there.
This magazine can be saved. Indeed, it must be saved. And the journalists who produce it must be assured the financial security they need to keep speaking truth to power in 2024 and beyond.
It’s like Molly Ivins said when the Observer celebrated its 50th anniversary:
Those of us who have put out this small magazine are suspender-bustin’ proud of it, and of the Observer’s role in the history of Texas. That such an improvably quixotic venture should have outlasted so many of its imitators and competitors seems to be a great victory for Ronnie Dugger’s high-minded idealism. Of all the business ventures with all the fancy spreadsheets and accounting tricks and marketing and advertising, we’re still here, and so many of them are not. I think this speaks not only to the need for the Observer, but to the heart of all the Texans who have helped us, and some who have cussed us, over the years.