Sunday, April 10, 2011

Liberals, Conservatives and the Dilemma of Race in 1950s Texas, Part I

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, we describe how beginning in the 1950s, increased African American and Mexican American political resistance forced the Texas Legislature to deal with more than a century of racial injustice.

Although many people today think of Texas as a western state, Texans remained closely aligned with the South throughout its history, especially when attitudes concerning race are considered. For African Americans living under the heavy yoke of segregation, life was full of uncertainties and held little economic promise. The right to vote remained an unfulfilled dream. The Democratic Party represented the only viable political party and that party barred African Americans from voting until 1944 when the United States Supreme Court Smith v. Allwright decision declared that the Democrats’ so-called “white primary” violated the Constitution.

African Americans won back voting rights, but still faced years of struggle to gain full access to the ballot box. They saw desegregated, quality public schools in Texas as a necessary step toward full citizenship. The 1876 state Constitution stated that children of the two races “shall always be taught in separate public free schools.” Black and brown Texans attending segregated schools in the 1950s and 1960s suffered from inadequate funding, poorly trained staffs, and the demands of powerful agricultural interests that expected young African Americans, Mexican Americans and their families to sacrifice education for underpaid service in the field during planting and harvesting seasons.

By 1944-45, as historian Alwyn Barr notes, 81 percent of black schools still had only one or two teachers (compared to 68 percent of white schools.) Only 32 percent of African American schools met state standards in terms of equipment, quality of instruction and qualification of teachers. As late as the 1930s, the state spent one-third less per pupil in black schools than in white schools.

No Texas law required segregated schools for Mexican American and immigrant children, but separate and unequal schooling for Hispanics evolved as a social custom, particularly in Central Texas, the Gulf Coast and the Lower Rio Grande Valley (while Hispanic pupils generally were not segregated in West Texas and in the Panhandle). Approximately 90 percent of South Texas schools discriminated against Hispanics. As a general rule, segregation against students of Mexican descent persisted only for grades 1-8, perhaps because poverty meant that most Hispanics in Texas dropped out before ninth grade.

As with African Americans, Anglos assigned Mexican Americans to dilapidated school buildings with out-of-date textbooks, inadequate space, and staffed with white teachers who did not speak Spanish or respect Mexican American culture. Hispanic students found they were often nudged toward vocational programs or were classified as mentally slow because of their language gap.

African Americans and Mexican Americans pursued separate paths to dismantle school segregation, but both encountered increasingly sympathetic federal courts. The post-World War II era marked a particularly fruitful time for groups such as the NAACP, LULAC (the League of United Latin American Citizens, formed in Texas in 1929) and the newly formed American G.I. Forum (organized in Texas in 1948 to aid Mexican American veterans in receiving federal benefits.)

A wave of successful civil rights suits filed against Texas schools began with the 1948 Delgado v. Bastrop ISD U.S. Supreme Court decision that banned school boards from segregating Mexican-American students from Anglo children. The court followed this up with the landmark 1950 Sweatt v. Painter decision that desegregated the University of Texas law school. This case laid the groundwork for the more famous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that overturned the Plessey v. Ferguson decision that had upheld the constitutionality of “separate but equal facilities.” Brown declared public school segregation illegal. Finally, in the 1957 Hernandez v. Driscoll CISD case, the court determined that one Texas district’s practice of retaining Mexican American children in grades one and two for four years represented a form of discrimination.

Response to these court decisions varied by region and demographics. By 1956, 66 school districts implemented at least token desegregation, including cities such as Austin, San Angelo, San Antonio, El Paso and Corpus Christi. Generally places like West Texas, which had few African American and Mexican American students, desegregated first. East Texas and North Texas, including Dallas and Houston, strongly resisted implementing Brown. Even in districts that ostensibly complied with Brown, however, the impact was minimal as such districts allowed white students to transfer out of integrated campuses.

Some politicians exploited the racial tensions generated by desegregation. Shivers urged resistance to the Supreme Court's Brown ruling. The governor encouraged whites violently blocking a federal court order mandating desegregation of Mansfield schools in North Central Texas. There, enraged white mobs surrounded the city’s high school on August 30 and 31, 1956 to prevent the enrollment of three African American students. Whites hanged three black-faced dummies in effigy, which dangled in front of the Mansfield High campus for days. Rather than maintain order and respect for the law, Shivers praised the Mansfield horde and violated court orders by dispatching Texas Rangers to prevent desegregation.

After Mansfield, Shivers succeeded in placing three inflammatory referenda concerning segregation on the Democratic primary ballot. Democratic voters were asked whether they favored repeal of compulsory school attendance laws “when white and Negro children are mixed in public schools”; whether they supported strengthening the state law barring intermarriage between whites and blacks; and whether they backed the use of “interposition” to “halt illegal federal encroachment” on states’ rights, measures approved by large majorities.

Other politicians, including some who would rise to the speakership, tried to avoid segregation as a no-win issue and said they worked behind the scenes to improve race relations. For instance, Jim Lindsey publicly stood for segregation and paid deference to state’s rights in his speeches, but helped provide financial support to black churches in his native East Texas after they had been bombed.

There were two churches on successive Sundays blown up . . . [O]ne of the banks set up a fund to collect money for rebuilding the church. And the pastor came to me and said, “Well, what should I do about this?” and I said, “Let them take up all the money they can take up. But when you get ready to build the church and you want a black person to build it they’re not going to go with you. So come on back and bring me the money, and we’ll take care of it.” . . . So we supervised the construction . . . and got it rebuilt. . . [W]e never lost a dollar financing black churches.

Lindsey later said that well-intentioned whites in East Texas did not picture a world in which whites and blacks could live without segregation. “I know we were trying to have this theory of separate but equal, and we were trying, in our way, to improve the separate . . . and make it equal. That was our thrust at that time . . .” Other East Texas politicians like Rayford Price of Frankston in Anderson County said that segregation seemed less a part of the natural order as he got older. As Price recalled:

"Actually, in 1960 when I first ran for the Legislature it [segregation] was a very hot issue, at that time. . . . [I]t seemed weird . . . at first, but it was just the way it was. And, then as I got older, I was active in the M.Y.F., the Methodist Youth Fellowship . . . A group of us tried to integrate at least the Methodist Church, at that time. We even went to the bishop about it. I mean, we came to the conclusion that that was really not the way to treat people. But I've also got to say that when I ran for office, it was such a hot issue that anybody running for office in East Texas was going to be for preserving segregation at that time."

Rayford Price struggled with reconciling Christianity with segregation. “It didn't go with what I thought Christianity was all about,” he said. Price campaigned for segregation and states’ rights when he first ran for the Legislature. “Well, I'm disappointed in myself,” Price now admits. “Yet, I know that if I'd done anything else, I wouldn't have gotten elected anyhow.”

He reports that other East Texans in the Legislature felt a similar conflict between personal beliefs and political expediency. “I've talked about it with a good friend of mine, Bob Johnson, who I served with in the House and who was later my law partner,” Price said. “We both ran on preserving segregation . . . We both regretted it but we had no choice if we were to be elected at that time.” Another East Texas Speaker, Jimmy Turman, who presided over the House from 1961 to 1963, agrees. “[A]bout the time I was running it was political suicide . . . if you voted for desegregation,” Turman said.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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