Ralph Webster Yarborough, the seventh of nine children, was born in Chandler, Henderson County, Texas, on 8th June, 1903. After attending local schools he entered the West Point Military Academy in 1919 but dropped out the following year.
Yarborough was a school teacher in Henderson County for three years before moving to Germany where he was assistant secretary for the American Chamber of Commerce in Berlin. On his return he attended University of Texas Law School.
After graduating in 1927 he became a lawyer in El Paso. Over the next four years he won 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. He also served as district judge in Austin (1936-41).
During the Second World War Yarborough, a member of the 97th Division, served in Europe and Japan. When he left the army in 1946 he had reached the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the war Yarborough became a lawyer in Austin, Texas.
A member of the Democratic Party Yarborough unsuccessfully challenged Governor Allan Shivers for the nomination in 1952 and 1954. Yarborough was one of the leaders of the progressive wing of the party. Shivers, on the right of the party, accused Yarborough of being in favour of racial integration and having support from the American Communist Party.
Yarborough, with the support of the trade unions, was elected to the United States Senate in April 1957. A left-wing member of the party, Yarborough was the only member of the Senate representing a former Confederate state to vote for every significant piece of civil rights legislation. This included the Civil Rights Act (1957) and Civil Rights Act (1960).
In the summer of 1963 President John F. Kennedy contacted Yarborough and asked him what could be done to help the image of the president in the state. Yarborough apparently told Kennedy “the best thing he could do was to bring Jackie to Texas and let all those women see her”. Kennedy had won Texas by only a small margin in the presidential election of 1960. It was believed that this victory was mainly due to the campaigning of his running-mate, Lyndon B. Johnson, who was the dominant political figure in Texas at the time. Kennedy believed that he needed to win Texas in 1964 if he was to be re-elected as president.
On 22nd November, 1963, President John F. Kennedy arrived in Dallas. It was decided that Kennedy and his party, including his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Governor John Connally and Ralph Yarborough, would travel in a procession of cars through the business district of Dallas. A pilot car and several motorcycles rode ahead of the presidential limousine. As well as Kennedy the limousine included his wife, John Connally, his wife Nellie, Roy Kellerman, head of the Secret Service at the White House and the driver, William Greer. The next car carried eight Secret Service Agents. This was followed by a car containing Lyndon Johnson and Ralph Yarborough.
At about 12.30 p.m. the presidential limousine entered Elm Street. Soon afterwards shots rang out. John Kennedy was hit by bullets that hit him in the head and the left shoulder. Another bullet hit John Connally in the back. Ten seconds after the first shots had been fired the president's car accelerated off at high speed towards Parkland Memorial Hospital. Both men were carried into separate emergency rooms. Connally had wounds to his back, chest, wrist and thigh. Kennedy's injuries were far more serious. He had a massive wound to the head and at 1 p.m. he was declared dead.
Within two hours of the killing, a suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald, was arrested. Throughout the the time Oswald was in custody, he stuck to his story that he had not been involved in the assassination. On 24th November, while being transported by the Dallas police from the city to the county jail, Oswald was shot dead by Jack Ruby.
After the death of John F. Kennedy, his deputy, Lyndon B. Johnson, was appointed president. Yarborough was a great supporter of Johnson's Great Society programs in education, environmental preservation, and health care. He also voted from the Civil Rights Act (1964)and the Voting Rights Act (1965). Yarborough was more critical of Johnson's foreign policy and was a strong opponent of the Vietnam War.
An advocate of preserving the environment, Yarborough sponsored the Endangered Species Act of 1969 and the legislation that established three national wildlife sanctuaries in Texas-Padre Island National Seashore (1962), Guadalupe Mountains National Park (1966), and Big Thicket National Preserve (1971).
Yarborough was a member of the Senate until he was defeated by Lloyd Bentsen in 1970. He now returned to work as a lawyer in Austin. He also served as a member of the State Library and Archives Commission of Texas 1983-1987.
Ralph Webster Yarborough died in Austin, Texas, on 27th January, 1996.