On my 16th birthday in 1950, I went to work for the daily newspaper in the small East Texas town where I grew up. It was a racially divided town — about 20,000 people, half of them white, half of them black — a place where you could grow up well loved, well taught and well churched, and still be unaware of the lives of others merely blocks away. It was nonetheless a good place to be a cub reporter: small enough to navigate but big enough to keep me busy and learning something new every day.
I soon had a stroke of luck. Some of the old-timers in the newsroom were on vacation or out sick, and I got assigned to report on what came to be known as the “Housewives’ Rebellion.” Fifteen women in town (all white) decided not to pay the Social Security withholding tax for their domestic workers (all black).
They argued that Social Security was unconstitutional, that imposing it was taxation without representation and that — here’s my favorite part — “requiring us to collect (the tax) is no different from requiring us to collect the garbage.” They hired a lawyer, went to court — and lost. Social Security was constitutional after all. They held their noses and paid the tax.
The stories I helped report were picked up by The Associated Press and circulated nationwide. One day, the managing editor, Spencer Jones, called me over and pointed to the AP ticker beside his desk. Moving across the wire was a notice citing the reporters on our paper for the reporting we had done on the “rebellion.” I was hooked. In one way or another, after a detour through seminary and then into politics and government, I’ve been covering the class war ever since.
Those women in Marshall were among its advance guard. Not bad people — they were regulars at church, their children were my classmates, many of them were active in community affairs, and their husbands were pillars of the business and professional class in town. They were respectable and upstanding citizens all, so it took me a while to figure out what had brought on that spasm of reactionary defiance. It came to me one day, much later: They simply couldn’t see beyond their own prerogatives.