Henry B. Gonzalez at Earl Able's
Former U.S. Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez once slugged a man in the face who called him a communist in his favorite fried chicken joint in San Antonio.
Gonzalez, who was 70 at the time, punched 40-year-old businessman Bill Allen in 1986 at Earl Abel’s, leaving Allen with a black eye and a cut on his eyebrow and resulting in an assault charge for the Democrat congressman.
The dust-up made national headlines for nearly a year as Gonzalez criticized almost everyone in the case and even forced a local judge to remove himself because he was a Republican.
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The case was dropped after Gonzalez apologized to his constituents. He never apologized to Allen, who later accused the veteran congressman of using his “position and circus antics to distort and cover up the facts.”
But the punch and what it said about the late congressman’s principles have lingered in the hearts and minds of longtime San Antonians, said Charlie Gonzalez, who represented his father’s 20th congressional district from 1999 to 2013.
“People will come up to me and tell me many things about my dad,” said Charlie Gonzalez, 77, who still has the yellowed front page of the Express-News from that day. “But there are just so many people that will say, ‘I really respected that he punched that guy out.’"
Bill Allen, at a news conference at Earl Abel's restaurant. Allen is the man who was punched by Gonzalez.
While newer generations might recognize the name only from the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, his contemporaries knew him as a tireless civil rights advocate who fought to end the racial segregation of city swimming pools, fillibustered Jim Crow laws in the Texas Senate, and brought a national spotlight to recurring flooding on the West Side.
Gonzalez’s strident stances on civil rights and other issues earned him death threats. He once almost came to blows with a fellow Texas congressman in the U.S. House Cloak Room.
“He was called many things based on his ethnicity and his political views,” Charlie Gonzalez said. “He got in trouble for emphasizing things like assimilation and equality. But calling him a communist at that time was like questioning his integrity, devotion and patriotism.”
Allen was a father of two and a former oil field man who had moved to San Antonio months prior to being struck by the congressman in the restaurant.
In 1986, Allen was seated at a table next to Gonzalez in Earl Abel’s. After he overheard Gonzalez insulting former president Ronald Reagan, Allen quietly told his friends: “There’s our No. 1 leading damn communist.”
Gonzalez stood up and said: “Did someone call me a communist?”
Unidentified pickets from Henry B. luncheon at Earl Abel's.
Allen admitted that he had. Gonzalez then took a swing at him, landing a punch on his left eye.
Gonzalez later told the Associated Press: "If a man calls me a crook or a communist, those are fighting words. It's kind of an assault on my integrity."
“Dad felt strongly that if you had an opinion about a person, you ought to tell them," Charlie Gonzalez said. "He’d called it standing and facing. In other words, like the old man to man thing."
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Charlie Gonzalez had been sworn in as a new judge of Bexar County Court-of-Law No. 2 three years prior to the fight at Earl Abel’s. As a judge, Charlie Gonzalez handled criminal misdemeanor A and B cases similar to what his father would later be charged with
Charlie Gonzalez first learned of the fight from his father’s chief of staff, who called him to relay the news.
“I said ‘Oh, man. You’ve got to be kidding,” Charlie Gonzalez said.
‘Really gets comical after that’
Allen later filed misdemeanor assault charges, which come with up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
“And it really gets comical after that,” Charlie Gonzalez said.
Fred Rodriguez, the newly elected district attorney, was worried about the politics of the case and was under a lot of pressure to treat it like any other.
An editorial cartoon that ran in the San Antonio Light in 1986.
For months, Rodriguez attempted to negotiate a deal in which Allen would drop the charges in exchange for a public apology from the congressman.
But when Henry B. Gonzalez called Rodriguez “a craven coward” at a news conference, all bets were off.
Gonzalez’s lawyers then won a hearing to have Judge Tim Johnson recused from presiding over the case because he was a Republican.
Texas Supreme Court Justice Oscar Mauzy, Mayor Henry Cisneros and state Attorney General Jim Mattox showed up in court on Gonzalez’s behalf.
The motion filed by his attorneys said a “holy war” was being waged against Gonzalez because he had strongly criticized then-President Ronald Reagan and called for his impeachment.
Johnson recused himself from the case in disgust. He was replaced by Judge Tony Ferro, a Democrat who had previously practiced law with one of Gonzalez’s attorneys.
Gonzalez's first attorney, Charles Butts, resigned after heavy criticism from the congressman.
Henry B. Gonzalez is seen with his wife Bertha after the case was dismissed in 1987.
In 1987, Gonzalez, ignoring a gag order, gave a one-hour speech on the House floor. It was his eighth and final speech on the House Floor about the assault case and related news coverage. He used his time to blast local officials, who he said were out to get him.
Allen dropped the case because he was tired of fighting.
In an interview with the Express in 1987, Allen said that much good had come from the case, which gave constituents in the 20th congressional district and around the state “a good hard look” at Gonzalez.
Timothy Fanning is a digital reporter for the San Antonio Express-News.