Texas gained two newly created U.S. House districts — the products of a growing non-White population. Even so, the draft map includes one less Hispanic-majority district and no Black-majority districts, instead prioritizing shoring up White Republican incumbents whose districts have grown more Democratic over the past decade.
But playing to the politics of White backlash is just one of many possible paths forward for the state. A closer look at Texas’s past reveals the state’s potential to foster a very different brand of politics, pointing it toward multiracial, multiethnic democracy instead.
Indeed, not one but two civil rights movements flourished in the last half of the 20th century in Texas, and they did so in intimate conversation with each other. African American and Mexican American activists fought the twin caste systems of Jim Crow (the segregation and domination of African Americans by law and customs) and Juan Crow (a similar system of domination over Mexican Americans, backed by state power but often without explicit statutes). They worked chiefly within their own movements, yet they also looked to each other for guidance and, at times, came together in solidarity. Their movements sought more than integration and access: They demanded power and justice.
After breaking away from Mexico and forming a republic of slaveholding settlers in 1836, Texas systematically privileged White planters while restricting Indigenous, Mexican and Black laborers. Multiracial insurgencies among the state’s poor forced elites to extend Jim Crow and Juan Crow in the countryside and in the state’s growing cities to maintain control.
The Terrell Election Law of 1903 imposed annual voter registration and the payment of a hefty yearly poll tax, a measure that successfully removed sharecroppers and farmworkers of all races from the voting rolls.
In 1923, segregationists invented the White primary, claiming that the Democratic Party constituted a private club and was thus exempt from the electoral protections embedded in the Fifteenth Amendment. Given the one-party nature of the South, however, a Whites-only Democratic primary functionally excluded people of color from the only elections that mattered.
In the 1940s, spurred by America’s soaring World War II rhetoric — which painted the nation as the defender of democracy — and new opportunities the wartime economy provided, African Americans and Mexican Americans launched vibrant civil rights movements. These crusades were separate, but sometimes intersected. Houston and Dallas had especially robust NAACP chapters, Mexican American veterans launched the American GI Forum from Corpus Christi and activists of all kinds organized local groups to protest injustices.
The right to elect independent politicians capable of substantive representation for Black and Hispanic neighborhoods proved central to these larger liberation struggles.
In Houston, African American community organizers and trade unionists in the NAACP challenged the White primary in Smith v. Allwright, a case that reached the Supreme Court in 1944. The court ruled the White primary unconstitutional, sending shock waves through the South. Black activists responded by launching voter registration campaigns and running for office on a scale not seen since Reconstruction.
In 1950, Texas activists won another landmark decision in Sweatt v. Painter, in which the Supreme Court compelled the University of Texas Law School to admit a qualified African American applicant. The decision desegregated higher education and set the key precedent for Brown v. Board of Education. Mexican Americans likewise won court cases challenging Juan Crow segregation, including Hernandez v. Texas in 1954, in which the Supreme Court ended the systemic exclusion of Mexican Americans from jury pools.
White elites in Texas responded with a wave of terror. In Mansfield, Tex., in 1956, a violent mob prevented the court-ordered integration of a high school. In rural East Texas, county sheriffs used their positions to intimidate Black families into abandoning public civil rights struggles altogether.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the long battle to win and wield the vote continued to dovetail with the fights for equity in education as well as resistance to state-sanctioned racial terrorism. Put another way, when activists staged a sit-in, marched to the county courthouse or demanded community control, they also sought to rewrite the political rules of their communities.
To the south of what one organizer called the “Mexican-Dixon Line” connecting Houston and El Paso, a new generation of activists flocked into the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) and chapters of the Brown Berets. They led walkouts from racist high schools across Texas, demanding equal treatment, bilingual and bicultural instruction, and an end to tracking and corporal punishment (for offenses that included speaking Spanish). Other MAYO members organized their own community-controlled schools, and still other activists formed independent, culturally responsive public health systems. Their disparate actions became known as the “Chicano movement,” as activists reclaimed an old pejorative term for Mexican Americans and wore it with pride.
Black youths in Texas joined distant outposts of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, expanding and transforming the local chapters based upon their community needs. In San Antonio, for example, SNCC organizers carried guns in public, sponsored free breakfast programs and staged peaceful protests against police brutality, often in partnership with their Chicano counterparts in the Brown Berets and MAYO. In an era before viral videos, these activists marched on city councils and disrupted downtown business districts to expose the routine killing of people of color by police, including the murder of 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez, shot by an officer at point-blank range in Dallas in 1973.
These local movements paired the goal of ending police violence with gaining power through electoral politics.
In Houston, Barbara Jordan joined multiracial voter-registration campaigns and local liberal coalitions throughout the early 1960s before launching her illustrious congressional career.
In 1970, MAYO members created the Raza Unida Party, a third-party protest against their systemic exclusion from both the Democratic and Republican parties. The Raza Unida took over four majority-Mexican American counties in South Texas and won a smattering of local races across the state. In 1972, the party’s gubernatorial candidate garnered a quarter-million votes. In San Antonio, Black activists in the SNCC joined the effort and rebranded it the “United Peoples Party,” contending that the Black liberation struggle could learn from the Chicano-movement example of political self-determination.
In 1975, Texas activists from the Raza Unida Party helped convince Congress to extend and expand the Voting Rights Act to “language minorities.” In Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio and across rural South and West Texas, activists documented and exposed the systemic dilution of Black and Latino electoral power. Black and Chicano organizers forced the state’s major cities to replace at-large electoral systems with single-member districts — giving their neighborhoods the chance to elect independent representatives for the first time in history.
These grass-roots movements empowered ordinary people to transform their cities, counties and state. They resisted and thrived despite segregation and the violence that defended it, and they waged pitched battles for equitable education, health care and other public services. In small towns and major metropolises alike, activists staged sit-ins and mass marches.
Like the struggles against racial violence and for equity in education and public services, the quest for political self-determination remains unfinished. The recent suppression of voting rights across the South, emblematized by the Texas draft map, challenges the decades of struggle that won the franchise for Black and Latino communities. In fact, it is a reaction to the gains made by those communities.
Texans who want to push for fairer voting systems and an equitable distribution of power need not look far to find examples of successful civil rights organizing in the state’s past.