Sunday, March 20, 2011

Pat Neff, Racism and the Progressive Movement in Texas

In 2010, the University of Texas Press published "The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became A Power in State and National Politics," a book I co-wrote with Dr. Patrick L. Cox. In this passage, I discuss the degree to which white supremacist ideas shaped the Progressive Movement in Texas.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Texas Democratic Party came under the strong influence of Progressives who believed in an activist government guided by well-educated experts who could make state agencies perform more effectively against social ills such as poverty and alcoholism. “Progressivism” never represented an organized movement but instead a nationally trendy viewpoint embraced by middle class idealists who believed that the advances achieved in the physical sciences could be duplicated in the social sciences. Progressives in Texas and the rest of the South adhered to a well-crafted regional version of progressivism: marginal reform without significant structural change to the social and economic status quo.

In the South, Progressives focused on the social good that could result from the elimination of drinking via a Prohibition amendment to the United States Constitution and an end to corruption and waste that supposedly would result from the disenfranchisement of blacks and uneducated poor whites. The Progressive agenda heavily influenced Texas speakerships in this era. Unlike their 19th-century predecessors, speakers in this period believed that government could play a positive role in making the state economy function more efficiently.

They generally saw public education and public universities as sound investments in the state’s economic future. Progressives also believed in policing private behavior, such as initiation a ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol. To Progressives, Prohibition represented not just a legitimate exercise of government power but an essential one. Alcohol, progressives believed, caused waste, domestic violence, criminality, unemployment and a host of other problems plaguing a gradually more urban and industrial state economy. In fact, they placed such an exclusive emphasis on Prohibition as the road to a just and prosperous society that they ignored almost all other paths to bettering society.

Texas Progressives saw African Americans as congenitally ignorant and, because of their wage dependence on whites, especially prone to political manipulation by their employers. Two Progressive speakers, Thomas B. Love and Pat Neff, particularly worried about the ill effects of uninformed voters. The Legislature tackled ballot “reform” in 1903 and 1905. Effectively, the new laws solidified Democratic, one-party rule in the state and eliminated organized opposition from Republicans, Populists and Socialists. Among other changes, the so-called Terrell Laws instituted a poll tax that severely hampered the ability of the poorest Texans, white and black, to vote.

More ominously for African Americans, the 1903 election law allowed major political parties to determine who could vote in their primaries, regardless of the voting rights guaranteed by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution. The state Democratic Party established a whites-only primary system. Since the collapse of the state Republican Party in the 1870s and the Populists in the 1890s, the Democrats held a virtual monopoly on elective office. The new Democratic rules meant that African Americans in Texas would have no real voice in determining who would win statewide office.

Pat Neff fought persistently for ballot “reform.” Born on November 26, 1871 on a farm straddling McLennan and Coryell counties in Central Texas, Neff graduated from Baylor and earned his law degree at the University of Texas at Austin. Even as a young man, Neff’s earnestness made him seem much older. “It cannot be said that he was like other boys,” Baylor roommate Samuel P. Brooks said later. “Strange to say, though a Texan born and a rustic, to this day he has never shot a gun, baited a fish hook, used tobacco in any form, nor drank anything stronger than Brazos water. He does not know one card from another and cannot play any kind of social game.”

Running for the state House of Representatives for the first time in 1898, Neff supported passing an “educational qualification” or “property qualification” standard for voters. Neff spoke favorably of the poll tax, which “has proven to be a good law and seems to me should be enacted into the laws of Texas.” On the fourth day of his first term in the Texas House, he introduced a bill amending the state Constitution to require a poll tax. Referred to the Committee on Constitutional Amendments, the bill languished there. In the same session, he co-sponsored another poll tax proposal that failed to pass. Neff experienced success in his second session, in 1901, when he supported poll tax legislation that passed both the House and Senate, winning voter approval as a Constitutional amendment by a 2-1 margin in 1902.

The new ballot restrictions disenfranchised not just blacks but also lower-income whites. Such measures proved highly popular with middle class and upper-income Anglos. “A majority of whites ⎯ conservative Democrats, reform-minded Hogg Democrats, and Populists alike . . . remained angry over the way both sides had appealed to and used the black vote during the recent political battles,” historian Randolph Campbell wrote. “They agreed that disenfranchisement of blacks would mean fairer fights between whites. Moreover, Hogg Democrats saw disenfranchisement as a means of convincing white Populists to return to their old party and help in the fight against conservatives.”

Neff and future speaker Thomas B. Love added another reason for supporting the poll tax and disenfranchisement. Both Love, who served as speaker from 1907 to 1909, and Neff strongly supported Prohibition. Both viewed blacks as morally lax and self indulgent, partially blaming black voters for the failure of a Prohibition amendment. ”[T]he Negro ought not to be permitted to vote on the question of whether or not liquor shall be sold in Texas any more than the Indian should be permitted to vote on the question of whether or not liquor shall be sold in Indian country,” Love said, casually implying that both blacks and Indians shared a propensity for drunkenness. With the elimination of the black vote, Love argued, Prohibition enjoyed a better chance of becoming law.

Neff made much the same argument, but claimed that Germans, not African Americans and Mexican Americans, were the main targets of ballot restrictions. “That [the poll tax constitutional amendment] had nothing to do with the Negroes,” Neff told an interviewer in the late 1940s. “The Negroes were never members of the Democratic Party. We drys put that in there to keep the wets from stealing elections from us . . . “ Neff was then asked about the provision of the election code which prohibited election officials from helping voters in any language but English. Neff denied that was aimed at Spanish-speaking Mexicans. “That was to stop the Germans down at Fredericksburg . . . A lot of them couldn’t speak English . . . so they couldn’t vote . . . [T]hey were all wet voters, those Germans down at Fredericksburg . . .”

Such strongly stated positions made Neff stand out among his peers. Neff apparently spent little time socializing with his fellow House members at the Capitol. Instead, he focused on his ambitions. Neff had already formed a close relationship with Speaker Robert E. Prince, another second-term member from Corsicana. Prince tapped Neff to be “in the chair” presiding while Prince took breaks on the second and third day of the session. This became a regular practice. Neff shared the title of speaker pro tem with two other representatives, acting as speaker 26 times that session.

The Prince-Neff partnership formed a pattern that characterized the “Dynastic Speakership” era after World War II. Reigning speakers essentially designated their successors by giving them highly visible leadership positions and allowing them to preside frequently over the chamber. By the end of his second term, many of his peers and the Capitol press promoted Neff’s rise to House leadership. According to one Waco newspaper, Neff “is a presiding officer of dignity and his impartiality has made him friends.” Not everybody was a fan and some found his austere personality sanctimonious. “Even Christ made wine and went fishing,” one political opponent snidely suggested, “and but for this Christ might have tied with Neff in Morals and habits but as the book stands today Mr. Neff has Christ bested two points.”

With no opponents in either the 1902 Democratic primary or the general election, Neff focused all of his energy on the next year’s speakership race, mounting his campaign 15 months before the 1903 session began. In the end, the 31-year-old Neff beat L.S. Schluter of Jefferson after 62 ballots by a 73 to 57 margin. As expected, Neff appointed Alexander Watkins Terrell chair of the Committee on Privileges, Suffrages and Elections. Terrell authored a 1903 law that established uniform election procedures and times for Democratic primary races across the state. Officially, it provided for a secret ballot, though further legislation would have to be passed in the 1950s to insure voter privacy. The law also set the time for paying required poll taxes between October and February.

The ballot reforms of 1902-1903 shaped Texas politics for the next sixty years. To vote in a meaningful election, one had to attest to being a white Democrat and, until the 1920 election when women could exercise suffrage for the first time, one had to be male as well. The requirement for a poll tax made voting rights a fiction for many poor Anglos. African Americans, the largest constituency opposed to segregation had been silenced. Viable Republican or Populist challenges to ruling Democrats became impossible. Surprisingly, though, the shrinking of the electorate left the House a more contentious place.

Michael Phillips is the author of "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001" published in 2006, and "The House Will Come To Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics," co-written with Patrick Cox and published in 2010 by The University of Texas Press. His essay “Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” appears in "Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations," edited by Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León and published by Texas A&M Press in February 2011. He is currently coauthor of a new edition of "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story."

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