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RHODES, LEE LIGHTFOOT
RHODES, LEE LIGHTFOOT (1864–1936). Lee Lightfoot Rhodes, farmer, legislator, and politician, son of John C. and July Rhodes, was born in Panola County, Mississippi, on March 6, 1864. He was the eighth of nine children and migrated with his family to Van Zandt County, Texas, during the 1870s. In Texas, Rhodes married Jennie Presley, who was also from Mississippi, and fathered four daughters—Lillian, Stella, Pearl, and Lucy. The Rhodes family was politically-minded, and Lee’s older brother Jacob C. Rhodes later became a prominent Texas political figure himself. By the time he reached adulthood, Lee Rhodes, like his brother Jake, belonged to the Knights of Labor in Van Zandt County.
Lee Rhodes’s first recorded political activity came in 1888 as a member of the Union Labor Party of Texas, and he began to build the political coalition of labor and farmers that would sustain his long career in Texas politics. The following year, he attended a convention in Dallas that brought together diverse labor and farmers’ organizations including the Knights of Labor, the Farmers’ Alliance, Workingmen’s Mutual Aid, and numerous artisan organizations in an attempt to create an umbrella organization named the Texas Federation of Labor. Although this initial effort failed, Rhodes nonetheless served on the executive committee and represented the third and fourth congressional districts.
Rhodes first sought elective office in 1890, when he ran a failed campaign for state senator under the Union Labor Party. Although he lost this first election handily, the campaign marked the beginning of a nearly lifelong opposition to the major parties in Texas, particularly the Democrats. Moreover, in the race the Republicans chose not to field a candidate, instead unanimously endorsing Rhodes’s candidacy, which suggests that he could garner the respect of those who might disagree with him politically.
Rhodes enthusiastically joined the Populist Party (see PEOPLE’S PARTY) in 1891. He declared that the Democrats and Republicans could not represent the will of the people and claimed that the former “locates the head of its national ticket in Wall street and the tail in the west” and the latter “puts the head in the west and the tail in Wall street.” Rhodes called for nothing less than revolutionary change and became extremely active in the Populist Party. He spoke at numerous engagements and even attended the 1892 national meeting in Memphis, Tennessee, as a delegate.
In 1894 Rhodes handily defeated John T. Currey by a margin of 2,022 to 1,349 to become the state representative for Van Zandt County. Rhodes served in the Twenty-fourth Texas Legislature and represented District 100 from January 8, 1895, until January 12, 1897. Like many Populists in the Texas legislature, he met with limited success in achieving his objectives. Rhodes served on three committees: Agricultural Affairs, Mining and Minerals, and Private Land Claims. He introduced four pieces of legislation during his time in the House, none of which passed.
H.B. 484 proved to be Rhodes’s most successful proposal in terms of longevity and consideration. The bill attempted to standardize the freight rates on Texas railroads by load rather than by item and called the current rates discriminatory and a burden to producers. Rhodes asserted that the maximum allowed charge “for car loads” of freight should be twenty cents per one hundred pounds, per one hundred miles regardless if the material being carried were cotton or lead. The bill was sent to the Committee on Internal Improvements, which reported unfavorably. However, Rhodes persisted and managed to get the bill recommitted. H.B. 484 died in committee, but it helped the Populists force the Railroad Commission to address the issue of freight rates.
Regardless of their ultimate failure, Rhodes’s bills defined his political ideology as a staunch champion of farmers and laborers. His legislative career, however, was short-lived. His 1896 re-election bid against former representative John T. Currey failed, and Rhodes spent the next several years redefining his political life. At the end of the century he reappeared on the political stage, this time as a member of the Social Democratic Party of Texas alongside his brother Jake.
In socialism, Rhodes found his political home for most of the remainder of his political career, and the movement benefited greatly from his experience, characteristic wit, respectability, and likability. He also became active in the Farmers Union and spoke at various meetings and helped to organize chapters throughout the state. From 1907 until 1919, his political career entered somewhat of a lull. He remained active within the Socialist Party of Texas (formerly known as the Social Democratic Party), speaking at numerous engagements in Texas alongside prominent Socialists such as Eugene V. Debs and attending the party’s national convention. Like Socialists throughout the country, his political fortune suffered setbacks throughout the World War I years, during which he attended very few official meetings and spoke even less. However, in 1919 he emerged as the Socialist nominee for lieutenant governor and later became the Socialist gubernatorial candidate when Word H. Mills dropped from the race.
Despite this brief flurry of official activity, the post-World War I years were difficult ones for Texas Socialists. The party ran no tickets in 1922 and 1924, although Rhodes remained politically engaged, speaking at large state conventions and emphasizing the importance of a strong connection between farmers and workers.
Rhodes’s political fortunes suffered during the 1920s. He attempted to forge a new farmer-labor alliance but met with only mixed success. The political bases that he had relied on for practically his entire adult life splintered in 1924-25, and even the labor faction of the Socialist Party further split. Rhodes himself briefly abandoned the Socialist Party to join the Progressive Party in support of the Lafollette-Wheeler presidential ticket, even serving as a presidential elector for the Progressives during the 1924 election cycle. After the failure and collapse of the Progressive Party, he joined many of his old friends and colleagues to form the short-lived Texas Labor Party in 1926, only to return to his roots in the Socialist Party in 1928. Rhodes mounted failed bids for governor on the Socialist ticket in 1928 and 1930 and posted dismal returns that were a far cry from the days when the People’s Party seriously challenged Democratic dominance.
Regardless of these defeats, Rhodes remained involved in Texas politics. Alongside many former third-party supporters in the 1930s, he joined the reinvigorated Democratic Party and entered the 1932 Democratic primary as a candidate to represent Van Zandt County in the state legislature. Rhodes failed to win the nomination, but there can be little doubt that the New Deal and the pro-union policies of the 1930s-era Democratic Party appealed to him as they did to many others across the country.
Lee Rhodes died on December 17, 1936, of an acute intestinal blockage at the age of seventy three. He left behind a legacy of a man committed to his ideals but willing to maneuver changing political climates to achieve those goals. His staunch, life-long support of farmers and laborers remained constant as he served in the legislature as a Populist, critiqued the Democrats and Republicans as a Socialist, or tried to survive political turmoil in the 1920s as a member of the Progressive and Texas Labor parties. He helped shape the Texas Socialist Party’s identity for the better part of three decades and ensured that the party could weather the various crises and political downturns in the first half of the twentieth century.
Dallas Morning News, July 28, 1891; November 4, 1900; November 19, 1923; August 22, 1924; March 11, 1926; July 9, 1928; September 14, 1930. Galveston Daily News, July 4, 1889; July 11, 1890; November 1, 1890; July 28, 1891. Legislative Reference Library of Texas: Lightfoot L. Rhodes (http://www.lrl.state.tx.us/legeLeaders/members/memberDisplay.cfm?memberID=3570&searchparams=chamber=~city=~countyID=0~RcountyID=~district=~first=~gender=~last=rhodes~leaderNote=~leg=~party=~roleDesc=~Committee=), accessed April 14, 2015. Mineola Monitor, May 12, 1888; June 23, 1888. San Antonio Express, August 8, 1919. Van Zandt County Genealogical Society, “Van Zandt County, Old Newspapers Page” (http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~txvzcgs/vzgswp59.htm), accessed November 16, 2014.
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Uploaded on April 15, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.