GEORGE CLIFTON EDWARDS, a pioneer liberal on political issues and the town’s most indefatigable fighter for free speech, remains a vivid and engaging figure in the memories of countless numbers of the generation that knew him personally. Born in Dallas in 1878, Edwards came of substantial, even aristocratic stock. He was the third of five sons who, along with a daughter, were born to William Mecklin and Elva (Gray) Edwards. The father was a lawyer reared and educated in Nashville. He moved with his family from Tennessee in 1871, settling in Dallas just before the first railroad arrived. A pioneer member of the Dallas bar, he served as city attorney in 1874-75 and in his later years as a justice of the peace.
At an early age George Clifton Edwards showed signs of a studious bent and a more-than-ordinary sensitivity to the ills and sufferings of common humanity. He went to the University of the South, with the idea of ultimately becoming an Episcopal minister. He soon decided, he said, that he “couldn’t swallow the creed,” so he considered teaching instead. After getting a B.A. degree from Sewanee in 1898 and an M.A. in English a year later from Harvard, he taught English at Sewanee through 1901. Returning to Dallas, Edwards became a teacher of algebra and Latin in the Oak Cliff high school, a job he held for the next six years. In 1904 he married Octavia Nichols, a
teacher in the Dallas schools. Two children were born to them, a daughter, Octavia Edwards, now a teacher in New York, and one son, George Edwards, who, after serving as mayor pro tern of Detroit, and as a justice on the Supreme Court of Michigan, is now a federal judge on the United States Circuit Court at Detroit.
It was in the period around the start of the century that Edwards first became acutely aware of imbalance in the social order. The town’s first unmistakable slum cried out for discovery in South Dallas. There cotton mill “operatives” lived and reared their Families in considerable squalor, and it was common to find small children under twelve years of age working twelve-hour shifts in the cotton mills. Edwards soon met and joined hands in protest with one of the most remarkable men ever to make his home in Dallas, the Very Reverend Hudson Stuck, dean of Bishop Garrett’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral. A native of England, Stuck had come to Texas originally to teach school in Abilene but had changed his mind. He studied theology at Sewanee, took orders, and thus reached Dallas. The two men verbally dealt the first solar plexus blow ever aimed at what would today be called the Establishment of Dallas: a demand that child labor be outlawed in Dallas and Texas. At the time nothing came of this shocking proposal, and Stuck soon left Dallas to serve as a missionary archdeacon in Alaska. There he promptly became world famous as a mountain climber, the first man to ascend Denali, often called Mount McKinley, the highest peak on the North American continent.
Edwards, who remained in Dallas for the rest of his career, started in 1902 the first night school for illiterates. Classes were held in the building housing the small mission established by St. Matthew’s Cathedral in the cotton mill district. This became the first free public night school in the city. In these years Edwards was intensively active outside his classroom as a member of the Socialist party. This drew the wrath of Rev. George W. Owens, a political big wheel in Oak Cliff, who demanded that the Socialist teacher be fired. When the school board refused, pointing out that neither algebra nor Latin was a Socialist subject, the outraged parson organized a drive which ousted
the board at the next election and terminated Edwards’s place on the payroll.
The teacher next took up the study of law, passed the bar exams, and hung out his shingle. Most of his energies were to go toward defending the poor, the ignorant, and the victims of discrimination based on race, creed, or color. He was a charter member in 1920 of the American Civil Liberties Union. He was one of the first members of the NAACP. At his death in 1961, having long since outlived the old Socialist party, he considered himself a Democrat in good standing as a member of Americans for Democratic Action. Edwards had lived long enough, in fact, to see virtually every plank in the once radical program of the Socialists taken over and enacted into law by either the Democratic or Republican administrations.
Carl Brannin, one of Edwards’s longtime close friends, remarked at the time of his death:
He was not a man to talk about himself or the things he did for the welfare of others. I never knew a person more devoid of petty personal pride and egotism. He asked no praise for doing what he conceived to be his duty. He was the founder and teacher of the first night school in Dallas, a “poor man’s advocate” in defending those who came to him in need, a J-man committee on civil liberties. He pursued virtue both personal and political all his life with the :fierceness of the early prophets, and with about the same inclination toward compromise. He was a pioneer on the social frontiers of our times.
Courtesy Dallas Yesterday by Sam Acheson.