If you have lived in Austin, say, 30 or 40 years, you might have stumbled on the fact that a federal building downtown, originally built in 1965 as a post office, is named after Homer Thornberry.
If you have lived here more than 50 years, you know exactly what part Thornberry played in our local history. You might have met the handsome, charismatic man who died in 1995.
He grew up in South Austin, the son of deaf parents who taught at the nearby Texas School for the Deaf.
He served as a representative in the Texas Legislature and then as a Travis County District Attorney. In 1948, he was elected to replace Lyndon Baines Johnson as representative for the 10th U.S. Congressional District, centered in Austin.
Like LBJ before him, Thornberry became a protege of longtime Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. In 1963, LBJ persuaded President John F. Kennedy to appoint the Austinite to the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas. A trusted friend and ally, Thornberry stayed at LBJ’s side during the hours after Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.
In 1965, Johnson named him to the powerful Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the former segregationist participated in many decisions that advanced the cause of civil rights. When LBJ nominated Abe Fortas in 1968 to replace Earl Warren as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, he put forward Thornberry for Fortas’ seat. But Fortas withdrew from consideration for the top spot, so Thornberry remained on the Court of Appeals.
Soon, we will expand on these bare bones through an interview with Thornberry’s grandson, Homer Ross Tomlin, who has written a fine biography, “Homer Thornberry: Congressman, Judge and Advocate for Equal Rights.”
UPDATE: A previous version of this story had the wrong death date for Homer Thornberry.