The Civil Rights Struggle in Texas

Contending with a racist political elite, police violence, and disenfranchisement, Black and Brown Texans struggled for decades to gain basic civil rights. Exploring the oft-overlooked history of these historic struggles is essential to paving a path forward for progressive politics in our era of right-wing reaction.

By Joshua F.

Review of Civil Rights in Black and Brown: Histories of Resistance and Struggle in Texas, Edited by Max Krochmal and J. Todd Moye, (University of Texas Press, 2021), 488 pages, $35.

Down here in Texas, there is a new law restricting the teaching of race, slavery and history in public or charter schools. In an apoplectic response to the notion that Black Lives Matter, the Texas legislature passed and the governor signed a law prohibiting districts from requiring teachers to cover “a widely debated and currently controversial issue.” Claiming more needed to be done to abolish critical race theory in Texas schools, the state overrode its previous attempt which was apparently too weak.

A teacher may no longer teach that “the advent of slavery in the territory that is now the United States constituted the true founding of the United States.” They may not suggest that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.” Even the New York Times 1619 Project is explicitly forbidden.

Though reprehensible, it is not surprising. At the state convention ten years ago, the ruling Republican Party adopted a platform opposing “the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills, … critical thinking skills and similar programs.”

This makes for an excellent moment for the publication of Civil Rights in Black and Brown: Histories of Resistance and Struggle in Texas, born from a large-scale, statewide, oral history research project.

In addition to addressing oft-overlooked battles in Texas, the authors of the essays also address another oversight in many histories of the era, putting the focus on the base rather than leadership. While the book certainly covers seminal figures in Texas like Hector Garcia, founder of The American GI Forum, the Hispanic (its term) rights organization, the focus is largely on grassroots struggles. People in these communities were inspired by the growing national movement and the systematic racism in a state that fought for independence from Mexico in order to legalize slavery.

Everything, as the cliché goes, is bigger in Texas. The sheer size makes it hard to generalize so the editors divide the book into three main sections: African Americans in East Texas; Chicano/a Struggles in South and West Texas; and Black and Brown Liberation Struggles in Metropolitan Texas. An example from each demonstrates the high value of this project.

African-Americans in East Texas

Sandra Bland died in the hands of Waller County, Texas police in 2015 after they arrested her during a traffic stop. Northwest of Houston, Waller County is the home of Prairie View A&M University. PVAMU was founded at the end of the Reconstruction era with legislation drafted by two former slaves.  While racial segregation was mandated in the state constitution, PVAMU was the first state-supported institution of higher learning for African-Americans. It was Sandra Bland’s alma mater.

Much of the U.S. media was aghast at Bland’s death, but as author Moisés Acuña Gurrola notes, “what the articles overlooked was that when most of the Anglos in Waller were not murdering, lynching, and assaulting Black Americans, they elected anti-Black compatriots to office and promoted … a white-supremacist political culture daily through segregation and the strengthening of Jim Crow rule during the twentieth century. … From 1890 to the 1930s, Waller County reported eight public lynchings (the second-highest total in the state) and twelve victims (the highest total).”

Historically, the university administration “adopted avoidance as the preferred method of dealing with white violence. … [U]niversity officials barred [Black students] from socializing off campus after dark.” The administration “feared economic reprisals as employees of the openly racist Texas A&M University system.” Students were discouraged from applying to white graduate schools and “[u]niversity officials even prevented students from applying to white-owned businesses for work or internships,” as ordered by powerful county figures.

However, both on the campus and in the community, resistance grew. After an escalating series of actions including boycotts of segregated businesses, half the student body organized a wildly successful boycott of the crowning game of the season for PVAMU’s football team. In a state where football is only arguably the second-most important religion, this was a tremendous blow.

In fairly short order, the college administration reluctantly began to support the students and the movements. Eventually, the campaigns were able to force local businesses to comply with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and desegregate their facilities. If they had waited for the federal government to step in, they would probably still be waiting today.

Chicano/a Struggles in South and West Texas

For a segment of the Mexican-American community in Texas, Hector P. Garcia was seen as “our Martin Luther King.” His mother and father, who fled the Mexican revolution, had been school teachers but their education was not recognized in the United States. The downwardly-mobile father went into the grocery business with his brothers in Mercedes, Texas, where “Anglos controlled the town and rigidly enforced ‘Juan Crow’ segregation.”

The parents pushed their children to become doctors and most of the seven did. Hector graduated from UT Austin where he had a GPA impressive enough to earn him the only spot reserved for Mexican Americans in the incoming class at the medical school. But he was forced to go out of state for his residency and then, in 1942, joined the army.

Instead of accepting him as a medical officer, they sent him to basic training for infantry. Eventually his talents were recognized by “skeptical white officers.” He returned to the States with an impressive service record and settled in Corpus Christi, Texas, a blue-collar port city with a vibrant Mexican American community.

Corpus Christi was home to the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a group of Hispanic WWI veterans who had become the leading voice for Mexican American rights. LULAC’s founders pushed full assimilation: “only American citizens could become members; the official language of the group was English.” Garcia arrived to find a segregated city with concentrated poverty and disease. “Mexican Americans lived in poor barrios, in shotgun houses without indoor plumbing or running water, crisscrossed by unpaved streets without sidewalks. … Corpus Christi had more tuberculosis cases than anywhere else in Texas and Mexican Americans made up the majority of those infected.”

Garcia launched a public health campaign. He went door-to-door and joined forces with Gilbert Cásares, an army recruiter and local radio host but soon had his own radio show “which he used to publicize the sorry state of affairs in his adopted hometown.” One focus was the state of Mexican American army veterans. The closest hospital for veterans was over a hundred miles away; “requests to open up more beds at the local navy hospital fell on deaf ears.” He set up his practice next door to the Veterans Administration building where he “treated returning servicemen for three dollars a visit” though he would not turn anyone away for lack of funds.

By 1948, when he called for a meeting of veterans, 700 showed up and they chartered the American GI Forum. The wife of a returned slain serviceman got word her husband’s body was coming home from the Philippines. But the local funeral home would not allow the use of the facilities because “Latin people get drunk and lay around all the time. We just can’t control them.”

Garcia shot off a round of telegrams to “the governor, attorney general, State Board of Embalming, a state senator, two congressmen, the secretary of defense and President Harry S. Truman” and “Lyndon Baines Johnson, a shavetail US senator looking for any chance to scrub away the tarnish from his questionable eighty-seven-vote win … in the Democratic primary the previous fall.” Johnson wrote back, “I have today made arrangements to have Felix Longoria buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.” This launched the Forum and Hector P. Garcia into the national spotlight.

Over the years, Garcia and Forum achieved much, but had substantial flaws. He resisted sharing power within the Forum and would not cooperate with other organizations in the rising Chicano movement. His self-importance, unwillingness to recognize new leadership and his loyalty to the Democratic Party did great damage to his legacy. His story is a lesson for movement activists that the movement cannot be based in one person or even one organization.

Black and Brown Liberation Struggles in Metropolitan Texas

Much of this book covers towns and small cities but it also includes civil rights movements in the major urban areas. Dubbed “City of Hate” after Kennedy’s assassination, Dallas deserved the name far before and long after 1963.

In 1920, the KKK kidnapped a Black bellhop named Alexander Johnson, beating him and burning “KKK” into his forehead with acid because he might have been involved with a white woman. “Despite a Dallas Times-Herald reporter witnessing the entire scene, law enforcement made no arrests–unsurprisingly, since the Dallas County sheriff, deputy sheriff, chief of police, and nearly all of Dallas’s police officers were Klansmen.”

After an unbroken chain of brutality, in 1973, an officer shot a 12-year-old Mexican boy in the head during an interrogation, suspecting him of robbing a gas station. With consistently high rates of violence by the police force, the Associated Press declared Dallas the number one city for police shootings in the nation in 1987.

Dallas local electoral politics from the 1930s were dominated by the Citizens Charter Association [CCA], a “civic-business organization run by Dallas’s elite” and the “Dallas Citizens Council (DCC), an organization formed in 1937 by a former Klan member.” Also founded in the 1930s, though, was the Progressive Voters League (PVL), a Black voting organization created to challenge the CCA. The PVL influenced elections, but its success was short-lived.

By the 1950s though, the NAACP in the city (and the state) had recovered and been key in several victories including desegregating the UT law school, raising local Black teachers’ salaries to that of whites and direct action campaigns to desegregate local establishments. After Brown vs. Board, they filed suit against the Dallas school district to make it follow the ruling. In the midst of this, there was a campaign of white bombings of Black homeowners and with the Montgomery bus boycott fresh in the news, the NAACP threatened one in Dallas, frightening the mayor into immediately desegregating the transit system. Alarmed at the NAACP’s successes state-wide, the Texas Attorney General issued a “temporary restraining order prohibiting the NAACP from ‘doing business in the state.’” This was made permanent by a district court judge.

Not only did this not stop the NAACP, local grassroots organizations and branches of national ones like SNCC, the Black Panthers and the Brown Berets grew, and struggled together, particularly in fights against police brutality.

Around this time, the Brown Berets, the Black Panthers and a white group founded around tenants’ rights called Boid d’Arc Patriots began working together in what local newspapers called the “Triumvirate Alliance.” They staged large-scale demonstrations in the streets of downtown Dallas throughout the 1970s. In late 1972 the activists stormed the streets after Dallas police officers shot and killed three unarmed Black men within the span of two weeks. They marched after Santos Rodriguez was murdered in 1973.” In 1979, “the three groups helped organize a counter-demonstration to a Ku Klux Klan march celebrating the group’s revitalization from the 1920s.”

Activists from these and other groups recognized though that demonstrations alone could not achieve the changes they needed in the city government or the police and they pushed other levers of power as well. The city council was all white until 1967 when the mayor, cognizant of Dallas’s poor image, appointed a Black businessman to the last three months of another’s unfinished term.

Al Lipscomb, a community activist close to SNCC, Pancho Medrano, a community and labor activist and others took the city to court and won, arguing that “at-large elections and the persistence of segregation prevented people of color from getting elected to city positions.” The plan created eight single-member districts with residency requirements but was flawed in the inclusion of three other positions without residency requirements and actually made it harder for Mexican-Americans to be elected.

However, some activists did manage to get onto the council. After another upsurge of shootings and killings by police, in 1980 they put forward a proposal for “a police review board with investigative and subpoena powers.” It won the support of the three councilors of color but the motion failed when the eight white councilors all opposed it.

Next, Diane Ragsdale, a seasoned activist, and two former Panthers formed Citizens United for a Review Board and began gathering signatures for a city charter amendment to accomplish this goal. However, the police department and the police union ran a campaign painting Blacks and Mexicans, particularly those organizing the petition, as criminals, killing the drive.

The city council did approve a “compromise”, but the nine-member board could only make recommendations to the police chief, could not “interfere” with police investigations of cases and could not conduct its own. Mexican and Black activists called it a “joke.”

After several widely publicized, unjustifiable killings by the police, activists invited US Representative John Conyers from Detroit to hold congressional hearings in the city. When the police then killed an 81-year-old man protecting cars in a parking lot according to witnesses, several hundred people rallied in the “March for Human Dignity” and finally the dam broke. “The majority-white council voted against granting it unlimited investigative and subpoena powers. Instead, the board could request subpoena power through a majority vote, and a two-thirds majority was needed to initiate an investigation. Despite those limitations, after more than a decade of protests, picketing, and political activism, Black and Brown residents finally had a review board with the potential of holding officers accountable for police brutality.”

Texas Today: Heading the Wrong Direction        

Despite the tremendous gains of the civil rights movements in Texas, the current far-right leadership of the state is not only reversing those gains, it is also rewriting history to deny today’s students the opportunity to learn about them. While activists in Chicago forced the city government to implement a “Reparations Won” curriculum in schools (ATC 217, “In the Classroom: Reparations Won”), the state of Texas is demanding libraries remove any books and denying classroom instruction that demonstrates the brutality and monstrosity of white supremacists’ record in Texas. Texas has some beautiful history to be proud of and this book presents many of its fighters. We will turn this around, but it’s going to get darker before the dawn.

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