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Swim Against the Current

Luna Moth by Keith Carter
Hightower during his campaign for Texas Agriculture Commissioner,
in front of what is now Güeros Taco Bar on South Congress in Austin, ca. 1981, by Ave Bonar

MARCH 22  – JULY 31, 2010
SWIM AGAINST THE CURRENT: Highlights from the Jim Hightower Archive

In December 2008, Jim Hightower named the Wittliff Collections as the official repository for his archival legacy, and now his papers are the focus of the next exhibition from the Southwestern Writers Collection: Swim Against the Current: Highlights from the Jim Hightower Archive. The show opened March 22 and ran through July 31, 2010 at the Alkek Library on the campus of Texas State University-San Marcos.

On May 1, Hightower was the guest speaker for a full day of free festivities celebrating the gift of his archive and the exhibition. "The Living Spirit of Texas Populism" featured panel discussions, live music, food, and more—all open to the public. Watch the videos online.

“When we took delivery of Hightower’s archive in early 2009, our first priority was to preserve and inventory the materials,” said Steve Davis, assistant curator at the Wittliff Collections. “Now that that’s done, we’re looking forward to a great turnout for our exhibition and the big May 1 event.”

Jim Hightower is considered America’s #1 populist, a man admired as a radio commentator, syndicated political columnist, best-selling author, and sought-after public speaker. Hightower believes the true political spectrum is not right-to-left but bottom-to-top, and he is dedicated to battling the Powers That Be on behalf of—in his words—the “Powers That Ought To Be”: working families, farmers, consumers, environmentalists, small business owners, and “just plain folks.”

Hightower’s archive consists of over 100 boxes, which document every aspect of his long and prolific career, including the many inimitable “Hightowerisms” (such as “Even the smallest dog can lift its leg on the tallest building”) for which he’s become famous.

Archival Assistant Mary García, with help from student worker Bianca Marshall, spent much of 2009 preserving and inventorying the current 135 linear feet of the Hightower archive. The materials arrived from his office already very well organized, separated into categories such as commentary files, show files, show tapes, book files, the Lowdown (Hightower’s long-running monthly newsletter), promotional items, speeches, videos, and travel.

In addition to the archive’s wealth of paper documentation, there are 1,964 photographs and 4,613 audio/visual materials. The collection will continue to grow as Hightower’s career moves forward. The preliminary inventory is online.

Curated by Davis with assistance from García and other staff, the exhibition Swim Against the Current: Highlights from the Jim Hightower Archive traces the life and work of Hightower, beginning with his experience in the 1960s as an aide to the U.S. senator from Texas, Ralph Yarborough, and his first organizing efforts on behalf of family farmers and farm workers in the early 1970s.

One of the earliest pieces among the papers is a small document from 1964: a Certificate of Exemption From Poll Tax issued to a 21-year-old Hightower, then a junior at the University of North Texas, because he was a first-time voter. Finally abolished in Texas in 1966 as unconstitutional, the poll tax was designed to deter poor people, especially blacks and Latino Americans, from voting, an issue in the Civil Rights Movement that inspired the young Hightower to set out on a political path.

Also on display are Hightower’s papers from his work as the national campaign coordinator for U.S. Senator Frank Harris’s crusade for president in 1976, as well as numerous campaign photos and memorabilia from Hightower’s own runs for office. Hightower served as Texas’s Commissioner of Agriculture from 1983-1991, and while in office he implemented many of his populist ideas, including consumer protection, worker safety, organic production, and direct marketing by small farmers.

The exhibition also highlights Hightower’s post-government work as syndicated daily radio commentator, speech­maker, and prolific author of several best-selling books, including his latest, Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow, written with his “co-conspirator” Susan DeMarco.

Jim’s bio, weekly commentary, Hightowerisms, and much more are online at

Before we took down the Swim Against the Current exhibition in late July 2010, Jim Hightower was kind enough to come in and give us an overview of his storied life and career, inspired by the exhibition. Watch the video.