Ralph Webster "Smilin' Ralph" Yarborough, United States senator and leader of the liberal wing of the Democratic party in Texas, was born at Chandler, Texas, on June 8, 1903, the seventh of nine children of Charles Richard and Nannie Jane (Spear) Yarborough. He attended local schools and developed a youthful fascination for military history. He was appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1919 but dropped out the following year. He taught school for a time while attending classes at Sam Houston State Teachers College, paid his way through the University of Texas by working at various jobs, and graduated from the law school in 1927. Yarborough married Opal Warren in 1928; they had one son. After several years with an El Paso law firm that included William Henry Burges and William Ward Turney among its partners, Yarborough was hired as an assistant attorney general in 1931 and was given special responsibility for the interests of the Permanent School Fund. Over the next four years he gained recognition by winning several cases against the Magnolia Petroleum Company and other major oil companies and successfully establishing the right of public schools and universities to oil-fund revenues. The million-dollar settlement he won in the Mid-Kansas case was the second-largest in Texas history at that time, and his work ultimately secured billions of dollars for public education. In 1936 Governor James Allred appointed Yarborough to a state district judgeship in Austin; Yarborough was elected to that office later the same year.
He made his first bid for statewide elective office in 1938, when he came in third in the race for attorney general. He served in the Texas National Guard in the 1930s and joined the United States Army in World War II; he served in Europe and the Pacific in the Ninety-seventh Division and ended the war as a lieutenant colonel with a Bronze Star and a Combat Medal. After the surrender he spent eight months with the military government of occupation in Japan. In 1946 he returned to Austin and resumed law practice. In the Democratic primary of 1952 Yarborough challenged incumbent governor R. Allan Shivers and lost. The campaign was the first of many in one-party Texas in which Yarborough was aligned with the progressive or liberal wing of the Democratic party against conservatives like Shivers. A second primary loss to Shivers in 1954 was characterized by harsh campaign attacks on both sides, as Yarborough accused Shivers of wrongdoing in the Veteran's Land Board Scandal and Shivers countered by claiming that Yarborough supported integration and was backed by Communist labor unions. He lost another bid for the governorship to senator Marion Price Daniel, Sr., in 1956 in a close run-off campaign. When Daniel vacated his senatorial seat in 1957, Yarborough joined the field for the office with twenty-one other candidates and squeaked through the primary with 38 percent of the vote to join Lyndon B. Johnson in the Senate. Yarborough received the support of organized labor, the newly organized Democrats of Texas, and the recently founded Texas Observer.
In the Senate, Yarborough established himself as a very different Democrat than the majority of his southern colleagues. After refusing to support a resolution opposing desegregation, he became one of only five southern senators to vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1957. He defeated wealthy conservative Democrat William A. "Dollar Bill" Blakley in the primary and Republican Ray Wittenburg in the election to win a full term in 1958. In 1960 Yarborough sponsored the Senate resolution leading to the Kennedy-Nixon television debate, a crucial event in the election and a model for subsequent presidential campaigns. In 1963 Yarborough was present at the Kennedy assassination; many believe his feud with conservative governor John B. Connally led to his sitting in the second car in the motorcade rather than with the president. Yarborough defeated George H. W. Bush, future president of the United States, in the senatorial race of 1964. In his years in the senate Yarborough supported many of the key bills of LBJ's Great Society and pressed for legislative action in the fields of civil rights, education, public health, and environmental protection. He voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was one of only three southerners to support the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yarborough served for years on the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee, of which he became chairman in 1969. He sponsored or cosponsored the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), the Higher Education Act (1965) the Bilingual Education Act (1967), and the updated GI Bill of 1966. He was also an advocate for such public-health measures as the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the Community Mental Health Center Act, and the National Cancer Act of 1970. A strong supporter of preserving the environment, he co-wrote the Endangered Species Act of 1969 and sponsored the legislation establishing three national wildlife sanctuaries in Texas-Padre Island National Seashore (1962), Guadalupe Mountains National Park (1966), and Big Thicket National Preserve (1971). His interest in the preservation of Texas historical sites led him to sponsor bills to make Fort Davis, Jeff Davis County (see FORT DAVIS NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE) and the Alibates Flint Quarries national monuments.
Through his support of the social welfare legislation of the 1960s Yarborough further identified himself with the goals of the national Democratic party and further distanced himself from the moderate-conservative state Democratic party. In 1970 Lloyd Bentsen, Jr., upset him in the senatorial primary and went on to gain the Senate seat. Yarborough's last attempt at political office, a run at John G. Tower's Senate seat in 1972, did not make it past the primary, where he was defeated by Barefoot Sanders. Yarborough returned to the practice of law in Austin. As an avid bibliophile and collector of Western Americana and Texana, he amassed a substantial library and numbered J. Frank Dobie among his friends and supporters. Dobie called Yarborough "perhaps the best-read man that Texas has ever sent to Washington." Yarborough wrote an introduction to Three Men in Texas: Bedichek, Webb and Dobie (1967) and contributed to Lincoln for the Ages (1964). He died in Austin on January 27, 1996. and was buried in the State Cemetery. He is regarded by many as one of the great figures in the Texas progressive tradition, a gregarious politician who campaigned in the old energetic, back-slapping style and who cared deeply about the social welfare of the people and believed that it could be significantly improved through government action.