NOVEMBER 4, 2018
“YOUR NEXT US SENATOR from the State of Texas, Beto O’Rourke!” I was surprised to hear these fiery words come out of my mouth. I’m a historian, so I normally draw on evidence from the past rather than predict the future, and I strive to avoid hyperbole. But here I was, warming up the crowd of some 200 people at a “Tacos with Beto” event in Fort Worth.
The crowd roared as the candidate approached. “Max, thanks for getting this kicked off and for starting this and being one of our great leaders here in the Dallas-Fort Worth, North Texas Metroplex,” Beto began, vastly overstating my role and my influence, but his statement contained one kernel of truth. Throughout the previous year, I had crisscrossed Texas like a politician, talking with groups of all sizes, shapes, and colors about the hidden, multiracial history of Texas liberalism. My tour revealed that the “Resistance” to Trump in the Lone Star State is flourishing, that efforts ranging from Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights movements to the women’s marches and the successful fight to kill the transphobic bathroom bill in the Texas Legislature all represent significant signs of progress.
While Texas still seems red as ever — Hillary Clinton lost the state to Donald Trump by more than 800,000 votes — demographic changes and political transformations on the ground have already created a blue numerical majority. The people are there; all that is needed is for them to organize. Democratic Party leaders now must turn it into a successful effort to seize political power. This is but the latest chapter in a much longer history of community organizing, coalition building, and organically radical politics — a decades-long war against the cowboy conservatism espoused by Texas boosters and politicians.
In the mid-1960s, despite facing opposition from Texan President Lyndon B. Johnson, four groups — African Americans, Mexican Americans, organized labor, and white liberals — came together in a partnership they called, simply, the “Democratic Coalition.” Together, these diverse activists confronted both Jim Crow and his cousin, Juan Crow, connecting vibrant social movements on the ground with the lofty terrain of formal electoral politics. In the streets and at the ballot box, they learned through experience that the more liberal, the more militant, the more committed to civil rights they grew, the more effective they became. They worked together to confront structural racism and to organize and educate first-time voters from unlikely backgrounds. In the end, the Democratic Coalition brought legions of African Americans and Mexican Americans into the political process, and it gave them the tools to remain active citizens. The activists’ united efforts defeated the worst features of Jim Crow and Juan Crow, carried liberals into office, and permanently expanded the state’s electorate, redrawing the map of Texas politics.
A closer look at the Democratic Coalition of the 1960s offers new insights into the present campaign cycle and helps to explain the diverse range of grassroots organizing that has exploded since the 2016 election. This history suggests that those who wish to turn Texas blue must go back to the future: Democratic Party and allied activists should develop a new strategy that reconnects the electoral arena to the impatient social movements of our time. Nobody can predict what will come next or when the state will flip, but it’s clear now that the key to Beto’s success at the polls lies in better understanding the past resistance in the streets.
Traveling back to the 1960s requires a few pieces of context. The terms “red” and “blue” did not yet exist, and Texas remained part of the “Solid South,” a political system spanning nearly a century in which you had to run as a Democrat to be elected dogcatcher. This trend began after the Civil War in Texas and across the South, when the Democratic Party pledged its fealty to white supremacy in order to overthrow Reconstruction. Democratic officials race-baited and even massacred their opponents to provide political cover for a revived agrarian economy closely linked to slavery. Their efforts created the new caste systems of Jim Crow and Juan Crow and crushed white working-class opposition along the way.
By the early 20th century, everything in Texas life was segregated by race, including job opportunities, neighborhoods, and political opportunities. In 1902, white Democratic leaders imposed a poll tax that required both a substantial payment and annual registration by January if one wished to vote each calendar year. Democrats also implemented the so-called white primary, a legal maneuver that circumvented the 15th Amendment by declaring the party a private club open to whites only, effectively removing black and brown voters from the only election that mattered. Rural areas were overrepresented in the state legislature, cities used at-large voting systems to restrict representation, and white elites controlled all aspects of the state’s political life.
The civil rights movements threatened this entire system. Both African Americans and Mexican Americans had long resisted the imposition of Jim Crow and Juan Crow and, by the middle of the 20th century, both groups were actively organizing mass movements to overthrow those systems. Activists in both groups put forward expansive visions of liberation that connected the fights for integration and access (the common understanding of “civil rights”) with broader pushes for independent political power, economic justice, and labor rights. It wasn’t enough to eat a hamburger at a lunch counter or to desegregate education. Activists wanted money to buy the restaurant and a say in how the schools were run. They sought the ability to determine one’s own future, to elect representatives who could speak freely for their neighborhoods (and not be controlled by white elites downtown), and to win access to good jobs, housing, and infrastructure — goals that were later popularized under the names of Black and Chicano power.
No one leader directed the state’s civil rights movements. Grassroots activists drew inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and César Chávez, but the movements were organized and led by ordinary local people. At the same time, distinctions of class, strategy, tactics, political ideology, and other internal differences all mattered at least as much as did ties of race and ethnicity. Intra-racial conflicts within African-American and Mexican-American communities often led the most militant activists in each group to forge inter-racial alliances. Coalition building across racial lines became their common secret weapon in the long struggles against Jim Crow and Juan Crow.
The Mexican-American struggle was heavily influenced by Albert A. Peña Jr., a civil rights activist and attorney turned politician from San Antonio. After leaving his hometown to serve in the Navy in World War II, Peña learned the basics of canvassing precincts while in law school in Houston, then a booming industrial city. He returned home and joined the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the nation’s oldest Latino civil rights organization, and upon his discharge, the American G. I. Forum (AGIF), a group founded in 1948 to combat the discrimination faced by Mexican-American veterans and their families. Both groups are often depicted as relatively conservative organizations, but the character of local chapters and activists varied widely, and much of their work occurred under the radar and without publicity. In the town of Hondo, about an hour southwest of San Antonio, Peña stumbled upon a winning strategy: in the early 1950s, he told local Mexican-American parents to attempt to register their children in the Anglo school, and once rejected, to return to the end of the line and do it again. The repeated direct action gummed up the works, preventing Anglo students from enrolling. By the end of the day, the Texas Education Agency had sent the district a telegram instructing it to admit “the Mexicans.” It was a powerful lesson: protest and politics mattered more than the law — and worked faster too.
Back in San Antonio, Peña organized a massive political and civil rights machine in the city’s barrios, the mostly Mexicano neighborhoods of the West and South Sides. In 1952, he helped found the Loyal American Democrats, a Mexican-American club with a bland name that masked its heterodox agenda. In the context of the poll tax, gerrymandering, and Juan Crow justice, building independent political power rooted in the barrios remained unprecedented, and potentially revolutionary. “Loyal” in the group’s title disguised its bold intent and ethnic character and simultaneously signaled its liberalism, its ties to the national party of Roosevelt, and its goal of bringing the New Deal to Mexican Americans in the Southwest. And bring it they did: that same year Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, who faced fierce opposition from Texas conservatives, gave a speech in Milam Square on the city’s West Side — the first national leader to visit the barrio. The next year, in 1953, Peña became chairman of the Political Action Committee of the local LULAC Council #2, leading the group as it pounded the pavement registering and turning out voters. The result was the election of Henry B. González to the city council — the first Mexican American to hold that post since the US-Mexico War a century before. Three years later, the group elevated González to the State Senate and made Peña himself a county commissioner, a post that allowed him to use the levers of government to bring more resources and power to his South Side precinct. In 1958, Peña helped González launch a quixotic campaign for governor, and two years later, in 1960, Peña served as the state co-chair of the Viva Kennedy clubs, the Latino wing of John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign (JFK credited the clubs with delivering the decisive votes that carried Texas for the Democrats in the general election).
By 1961, Peña and like-minded activists from across the state consolidated their gains by founding the Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations (PASO). The group sought political power and patronage appointments for Mexican Americans, but the larger goal was to uplift their community. PASO activists wanted quality education, economic development and opportunity, labor rights, and above all, an end to ethnic and racial discrimination against Mexican Americans. Peña was elected the state chairman and soon steered PASO into the Democratic Coalition.
For their part, African Americans in Texas drew on a history of expansive civil rights struggles beginning in the 1930s and 1940s. Rooted in black labor activism in Houston and political action in Dallas, the activists worked to break open the Jim Crow political and economic system through a combination of direct action, trade unionism, and lawsuits. Employment discrimination was commonplace: even in the midst of an oil- and defense-industry boom, African-American workers were restricted to the lowest-paid, dirtiest, and most difficult and dangerous occupations. They flocked to the labor movement, often leading the organizing efforts and taking on leadership positions despite the fact that many of the new unions treated them as second-class citizens. And they pooled their resources at their union halls, churches, and a dizzying array of civic and community organizations, building the nation’s second-largest branch of the NAACP by the middle of World War II.
Local black people waged the civil rights war at work, in the streets, and in the courts. They stood on street corners and at factory gates collecting nickel and dime donations to mount a lawsuit against the hated white primary, the first obstacle to meaningful political participation. Along with their allies in the black middle class, they drafted attorney W. J. Durham of Dallas and later Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to advance their cause. The case went to the US Supreme Court, which ruled in Smith v. Allwright (1944) that the white primary was unconstitutional, ending the practice nationwide. Mrs. Lulu B. White, the head of the local NAACP, called it a “second emancipation.”
At the same time, Heman Sweatt, a postal worker and member of the all-black National Alliance of Postal Employees, tried to work his way up the ranks through the established channels. He filled out the forms to get a promotion at the post office, but his skin color put his application in file 13. He filed a grievance through his union but got nowhere. Exasperated, he applied to attend law school at the University of Texas, where he was duly rejected. He then drew on Houston’s vast network of “civil rights unionists” to file his own lawsuit, Sweatt v. Painter, a 1950 case that again went to the Supreme Court, which ordered the desegregation of higher education in Texas and the United States (it also served as a key precedent for Brown v. Board of Education four years later).
Beginning in 1960, this older generation of African-American organizers provided critical support to — and even marched alongside — the youthful activists who launched sit-ins and pickets against segregated lunch counters across the state. At the same time, they began building their own base of independent political power through a network of small, neighborhood-based civic groups. In 1962, local leaders came together to organize the statewide Texas Council of Voters, aiming to mobilize a black political bloc. Many of its leaders brought previous experience in building local inter-racial alliances. In San Antonio, an undertaker and liberal gadfly named G. J. Sutton had done so dating back to the 1930s. By the early 1960s, he had become a close ally and friend of his counterpart across town, County Commissioner Albert Peña.
The self-styled white-led “liberal movement” constituted the third leg of the statewide Democratic Coalition. In the 1930s, a group of white self-identified liberals began coming together at the party’s biennial conventions seeking to extend the promise of New Deal economic reforms into Texas. The Texas liberals called for transparent, accountable, small-d democratic government and thus limits on the political influence of big business, which fought to protect their small government from the scourge of costly public services. Liberals called the conservative leaders the “Suite 3F” crowd, an epithet named for the smoky Houston hotel backroom where elites gathered and made the real decisions behind closed doors, allowing big business to run roughshod over workers and people of color.
Though the white liberals embraced the New Deal, they weren’t particularly committed to racial justice. In fact, one of the faction’s first spokesmen, former congressman and mayor Maury Maverick Sr. of San Antonio, had defended the white primary as part of his own protracted struggle against a corrupt local machine that depended, in part, upon black votes. Similarly, by the 1940s and ’50s, many yellow dog Democrats in the state’s small towns and country crossroads, and in particular those in “Deep East Texas,” saw no contradiction in advocating for economic reforms while altogether ignoring Jim Crow. Even the most liberal white activists in the larger cities adopted the gradual paternalism that was common across the segregated South: they believed that racism was a sin and should be eliminated, but they thought that change would be slow in coming and that pushing too hard, or too soon, would only produce a backlash. They occasionally reached out to African-American leaders in an attempt to mobilize black votes, but their relationships across the color line were often “dishonest,” as one key organizer later recalled. Each group would use the other, at best, and even the most progressive white candidates often defaulted to the unconscious white supremacy of their upbringing.
Despite these blinders, white liberals organized tirelessly. The fruits of these efforts included the takeover of the Harris County Democratic Party Executive Committee in Houston and the election to the US Senate of Ralph W. Yarborough, a fiery East Texas populist. Yarborough had run unsuccessfully for governor in 1952, 1954, and 1956, but each campaign allowed the liberals to build an infrastructure and expand its card file and network. In 1957, he won a special election to the US Senate with a plurality in a crowded field, and from that post he became the standard-bearer for the next 15 years of what activists called the “liberal movement.” The liberals created a formal statewide organization, the Democrats of Texas (DOT), and spawned a newspaper, the Texas Observer. They also elected their leader and matron, Mrs. Frankie Carter Randolph, as the Democratic National Committeewoman from Texas, a top post in party administration. All this incurred the wrath of the senior US Senator from Texas, Lyndon B. Johnson. Despite his later liberalism, Johnson in the 1950s was concerned with one thing only: the advancement of LBJ. As he ran for president and then vice president in the 1960 cycle, Johnson mobilized his own network of county political bosses to undermine the DOT.
The final leg of the Democratic Coalition was organized labor. Like the “liberal movement,” labor was led by whites and primarily concerned with broad political and economic reforms. It was a powerful force: by the late 1950s, 17 percent of industrial workers in Texas were unionized, about half the national average. Union leaders struggled to extend their gains on the shop floor as the state’s major contractors maneuvered to bust the building trades unions, and the despised right-to-work laws slowed organizing efforts in manufacturing. Efforts to repeal those laws and to create workers compensation and other broad safety nets stalled in the conservative state legislature, and Cold War anticommunism made labor a punching bag.
The four legs of the coalition — all weak in their own ways — were “forced together in self-defense,” as one leader later put it. Yet it is important to underscore that each group turned to coalition building out of its own self-interest. None of the activists were motivated by charity or even solidarity. Rather, each faced intra-racial opposition: for white liberals and labor leaders, this came in the form of conservative white elites. African-American and Mexican-American activists confronted the same enemies as well as self-styled “race-leaders” within their communities, ministers and businessmen who denounced protest and sought to advance their groups — and themselves — via diplomacy and patronage from the power elite. For firebrand community organizers like Albert Peña and the civil rights unionists of the Texas Council of Voters, however, the indignities of Juan Crow and Jim Crow warranted a more aggressive approach. They embraced confrontational tactics, worked to build independent political power, and demanded both economic justice and an immediate end to discrimination in all arenas. The Democratic Coalition gave each group of activists an opportunity to outflank their co-ethnic social betters, and each of them seized their chance.
The Democratic Coalition was an uneasy blend. One early meeting took place in a segregated Austin hotel at which black delegates were forced to enter from a back door and then ascend to a ballroom in a service elevator. African Americans at the gathering demanded that the group pay special attention to the needs of black voters. Many Mexican Americans in PASO remained suspicious of the coalition, despite the fact that their elected chairman, Peña, was among its conveners. White liberals from the DOT did not trust the labor leaders, whom they viewed as overly expedient and too willing to cut deals with their ideological enemies. Labor, in turn, resented the impracticality and ideological purity demanded by the plaintiffs lawyers and other professionals in their midst. Black and brown leaders also maintained well-earned resentment toward both labor and the liberal Democrats, both of whom had excluded them from their ranks for years.
A new wave of grassroots activism in 1963 changed the equation. Civil rights protests on the streets of major cities helped “separate the wheat from the chaff,” as one activist newspaper noted. Black and brown activists who joined sit-in demonstrations and marches completed their break from their more conservative co-ethnics, self-defined “race leaders” who sought to curry favor with local elites. Meanwhile, under the leadership of plumber H. S. Hank Brown of San Antonio, the Texas AFL-CIO reversed its historic do-nothing policy on civil rights, demanding that Governor John Connally call a special session of the legislature focused exclusively on civil rights reforms. They defined the issue broadly, to encompass economic rights and Mexican-American issues in addition to an end to Jim Crow.
Activists of all colors soon breathed new life into the Democratic Coalition, now led by four co-chairs, one from each of its four “legs” of African Americans, Mexican Americans, organized labor, and white liberals. The steering and executive committees included equal numbers from each group, and even the mass meetings were evenly divided. In July 1963, the group voted to make civil rights its top domestic priority and made a pledge to refuse to endorse any candidate who did not support immediate integration by law, or as they put it, “Freedom Now.”
On August 28, 1963 — the same day as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — coalition members staged a march on Austin. Around 1,000 demonstrators paraded from the all-black neighborhood of East Austin past the gleaming granite capitol and stately governor’s mansion. Black teenagers led the procession, but veteran organizers of all colors swelled their ranks as they rallied in a nearby park. “The day is over when he [Governor Connally] can separate Negroes, except those few who are conservative and have gotten super rich,” coalition co-chair W. J. Durham exclaimed to the assembled crowd.
They’ll never separate the Latin-American and Negroes again in politics. They’ll never separate the independent white man and the Negro again. They’ll never separate labor and the Negro again. We’re going to march on the street, pray on the streets, sit in the streets, walk on the streets. We’re going to fight at the ballot box and in the courts.
The March on Austin was just the beginning. For the next 15 months, the Democratic Coalition launched the biggest grassroots voter registration and mobilization effort in Texas history. They called it Project V.O.T.E., or “Voters of Texas Enlist.” It centered on the era’s unlikely voters, African Americans and Mexican Americans in the inner cities and rural hinterlands, and it employed dozens of black and brown civil rights activists from across the state. With near-military precision, Coalition leaders targeted the neighborhoods that they had identified over the two previous years of poll tax campaigns, and local people joined the staff and led the way. In San Antonio, associates of Peña and Sutton took charge. In Houston, the Coalition recruited a relatively unknown legislative aide turned failed candidate to serve as the project’s coordinator — her name was Barbara Jordan. Each of these directors hired staff organizers, who in turn recruited volunteer block captains, each of whom was responsible for identifying, registering, and turning out 20 voters on their streets. Coalition headquarters sent “Freedom Kits” to the volunteer “blockworkers,” who in turn replied with postcards listing each of their contacts. After near-continuous organizing from the summer of 1963 to November 1964, Project VOTE had signed up some 10,000 volunteer blockworkers, and their efforts had created a mailing list of hundreds of thousands of new voters — African Americans and Mexican Americans who had never before had access to the franchise. PASO leaders boasted about their success in awakening “the Sleeping Giant” of Mexican-American political power, while black activists flexed their electoral muscle with unprecedented turnout and a 98 percent vote in favor of the Democrats.
Activists ran for office and redrew the map of metropolitan politics, creating today’s familiar pattern of deep dark blue enclaves in the central cities surrounded by red suburbs. The more liberal, the more explicitly integrationist, and the more militant in its tactics — the more effective the Democratic Coalition became. Years of equivocation on each of these points had failed to produce results. When the DOT deferred to the Southern mores of East Texas, or when the coalition held a meeting in a segregated hotel, they failed to take action as a whole. But when the coalition prioritized the fight against racism and followed the leadership of its nonwhite members, it took off. It worked because its leaders didn’t shy away from controversy, and because it gave rank-and-file activists opportunities to develop working relationships across the color line.
Yet coalitions bring together groups with diverging interests, and they fall apart much more quickly than they are assembled. By the late 1960s, the Democratic Coalition of Texas had slowly dissolved. It had broken down the doors of the state Democratic Party and even elected some veteran activists to office, but activists soon realized that their power was limited as people and resources migrated to the suburbs. Even in the cities, conservative elites recalibrated their own strategy to better incorporate and co-opt black and brown leaders into the power structure. Some coalition members joined a new round of direct-action demonstrations against businesses that refused to integrate following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, while others flocked into the farmworkers’ and Chicano movements that exploded out of South Texas. For their part, white liberals and labor struggled to respond to these new movements, including their ongoing demands for affirmative action and the meaningful integration of public schools. President Johnson’s swing to the left in domestic policy and simultaneous escalation of the war in Vietnam further confounded the coalition. In the end, the organizers’ disparate priorities begot infighting, and the fragile trust born out of the common struggle gave way to renewed suspicion. Many white leaders defaulted back to their unconscious white supremacy of the 1950s, paternalistically asserting that the Black and Chicano Power movements were pushing too far, too fast. This “barrier of righteousness,” as one activist called it, meant that the ongoing civil rights struggles — which had always demanded sweeping political and economic change, not just access — were once again on their own. Democratic Party activists continued to jockey for control of the party and state politics, but they did so without the critical energy and on-the-ground organizing of the black and brown community activists.
Five decades later, observers across the country now look to Texas and ask if it might turn blue. The Democratic Party holds the cities but has been locked out of every statewide office since the late 1990s. Suddenly, Beto O’Rourke’s formerly quixotic battle against incumbent Ted Cruz has been labeled a “toss-up.” Optimism abounds, heightened by Beto’s prodigious fundraising and charisma as well as the fact that, in the last presidential election, Hillary Clinton narrowed the gap to single digits (to a margin of nine percent; four years earlier, Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama by nearly 16 percentage points). What will happen this November remains anyone’s best guess, but a closer look at the returns from 2016 suggests that turnout by race will be the key factor. In other words, Beto’s chances depend on whether or not he can produce a massive uptick in unlikely voters akin to the grassroots mobilizations of Project VOTE in the 1960s.
Color-coded by county, the 2016 electoral map reveals an archipelago of blue urban islands surrounded by a vast sea of red. Turnout remained low across the board. Most of the heavily Latino South Texas counties along the Mexican border remained blue, for example, but the largest of these, Hidalgo County, turned out only 51 percent of voters and a pro-Clinton margin of only 70,000 votes. In contrast, the margin of raw votes in Dallas was nearly three times larger, 200,000 votes, eclipsing that of the Rio Grande Valley. In short, the big cities and the border counties are all now safely blue, but the margins of victory remain too small to overcome the heavily Republican suburbs and rural areas, where voters display more Election Day enthusiasm for going to the polls.
White voters in Texas outnumbered all other groups combined — some 5.9 million votes cast. The white vote grew more in raw terms and faster proportionately than any other large racial group as compared to 2012. The exception is Asian Americans, whose numbers are small but staggering. Turnout among Asian Americans shot up nearly five points, and the raw numbers of votes cast increased from 214,000 to 338,000, a 58 percent increase. It was probably decisive in suburban Fort Bend County outside Houston, which went blue for the first time by a margin of just over 17,000 votes. Latino turnout barely changed as compared to four years earlier. Most alarming for Democrats, African-American turnout actually fell by nearly six percent, and the raw number of black votes also decreased by 3,000 votes as compared to 2012. There’s an obvious explanation: black voters were less excited about a white candidate versus a black one. Still, it’s worth pausing to consider the full implications of this commonplace conclusion: Democrats in Texas and nationwide must have black candidates high on their tickets if they want high black turnout. Or put another way, if they want to win.
Many Democratic Party officials and sympathetic analysts look at these same numbers and assume that the inexorable tide of demographic change will fix the situation. But it won’t. Indeed, present-day statements by Democratic leaders mirror almost verbatim the optimistic memos written by DOT liberals in the 1950s. Someday soon, they tell us, the sleeping giant of the Latino vote will awaken. Yet the past 50 years has shown that it will not, barring a concerted organizing campaign on a scale reminiscent of the Democratic Coalition of the 1960s.
New research by demographer Rogelio Sáenz shows that it is the state’s white population that is growing faster than previously thought, both naturally and from in-migration, and most of the additions are voting Republican. Meanwhile, Sáenz demonstrates, both the fertility rates and the in-migration of Latinos are plummeting. Demographic change is clearly not destiny; in fact, it may not even be favorable to Democrats at all.
Voter registration likewise represents a red herring. Many present-day activists point to the need to expand the electorate, a noble goal that can tip the scales in smaller races. But at the state level, Democrats can already count enough sympathetic registered voters but simply fail to get them to polls. A comparison between Texas and California reveals that the two states register approximately the same percentage of their voting age populations — in both places, about 78 percent of those who are eligible to vote are registered to do so. Californians turn out and vote on Election Day at a rate of 75 percent; Texans stay home, with less than 60 percent of registered voters making it to the polls (including early and absentee). Only 46 percent of Texans who are eligible actually vote on Election Day; in California, nearly 59 percent do. California is now deep dark blue. Meanwhile, the largest political party in Texas — and by a lot — is the non-voter.
The history of midcentury Texas politics offers two key explanations, both with national implications: nobody has really invested in turning out unlikely voters in the state, and partisan politics remain disconnected from voters’ daily lives. No social movements connect elections to lived experience; no community-based campaigns empower younger activists. The Democratic Party has failed to connect with the grassroots social movements of our time. “These are our folks,” a coalition staffer put it plainly in the 1960s, but “[t]hey ain’t votin’ for us because we ain’t doin’ right by them.” He might well be speaking for today. Yet across Texas, young people, workers, and progressives of all colors are organizing as never before, and winning. Together they represent the seeds of a new coalition, one capable of connecting the insurgencies with formal politics — and carrying the Democratic Party into power along the way.
Beto’s campaign may be a harbinger of change. Loose electoral alliances recently elected very liberal mayors in Houston and San Antonio and are on the march in Dallas, which has already turned blue. Despite its reputation as a liberal enclave, Austin’s municipal leaders have traditionally ignored the city’s nonwhite residents, a trend that is now shifting thanks to the adoption of new voting districts. There are even rumblings in Fort Worth, the state’s most conservative major city.
The most potent force on the ground is the movement for immigrant rights, an issue that pollsters repeatedly identify as a top priority for Latino voters. Born in its current incarnation in the “megamarches” of 2006, the movement’s shock troops are college and high school students — young, unlikely voters. In Texas and nationwide, they have hosted innumerable “Know Your Rights” clinics and workshops to help DACA recipients renew their legal status despite the very real threats posed by the Trump administration. Mixed-status families attend these gatherings, many of which have a political edge. The tipping point came in the summer of 2017, when youth leaders organized massive protests in Austin again Senate Bill 4, a bill banning sanctuary policies in local governments that also included a “show me your papers” provision that protects local police and sheriff’s departments who wish to enforce federal immigration law. In its original form the bill, which passed despite the outcry, even restricted the free speech rights of local elected officials, barring them from criticizing the legislation or other state-level immigration restrictions.
In the past year, vibrant local movements have emerged on college campuses and in cities across the state. In Dallas, the North Texas Dream Team melded the fight for DACA to the struggle against the “show me your papers” bill, while United We Dream-Houston connected both pushes to the electoral arena. United Fort Worth mobilized hundreds of people in a sustained (but unsuccessful) campaign to convince the conservative city council to join other Texas cities in litigation against the law. Youth organizers from across the state rode caravans to federal circuit court hearings on DACA in New Orleans and other locales and joined the mass lobbying effort in Washington, DC, in December 2017. Wearing bright orange beanies, youth activists from Texas faced arrest for blocking the capitol’s tunnels and staging sit-ins at legislative offices, ultimately compelling Congressional Democrats to shut down the federal government. Although the Democrats quickly retreated, the fact that the shutdown occurred at all is testament to the grassroots power of the immigrant rights movement — and its potential to propel electoral change.
The Lone Star State has also emerged as an unlikely battleground in the nationwide struggles against police brutality and mass incarceration. The state was the adopted home of Sandra Bland, a young black professional who returned to Texas to work at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, but ended up dying in custody at the Waller County jail after a traffic stop. Her apparent murder by the state inspired a hashtag, “#SayHerName,” and set off protests in nearby Houston and across the nation. Along with members of the low-income community-based Texas Organizing Project, Black Lives Matter activists in the city helped elect the liberal African-American mayor, Sylvester Turner, but only after he had pledged to enact sweeping criminal justice reform. In the nearly two years since, on both sides of Hurricane Harvey, grassroots leaders have worked to hold him to his commitment. Activists aim to make Houston a national model for meaningful changes to crime and punishment, and they have already achieved a major victory: the city decriminalized marijuana, making its policing similar to that of speeding tickets, a seemingly small act that will keep thousands of nonviolent offenders, mostly black and brown, from being incarcerated. Black Lives Matter activists in Houston are also calling their communities to take action on behalf of Temporary Protected Status for black migrants from Haiti and in solidarity with Latino and Middle Eastern immigrants. Perhaps most important, close interpersonal bonds are developing between the activists tied to BLM-HTX and those in United We Dream-Houston. Like Albert Peña and G. J. Sutton in the 1950s, they are deepening their understandings of each other’s struggles and pushing others in their respective communities toward solidarity across racial lines.
The new upsurge has extended to ordinary people who never imagined themselves as activists. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Women’s March and the network of Indivisible organizations that are popping up across the state and nation. Some 50,000 women and allies protested in Austin on January 21, 2017, along with millions more across the United States. Many of these newly politicized marchers returned for rallies at the capitol in support of reproductive rights during the legislative session that spring. Straight white women also joined the LGBT-led alliance against Senate Bill 3, the so-called “bathroom bill” that sought to force transgender people to use toilet facilities that corresponded to the sex listed on their birth certificates — and compelled schools, local governments, and even private businesses to maintain the gender binary. S.B. 3 went down to defeat, in so small part due to pressure from below.
Grassroots liberal and radical political organizing has reached heights not seen in decades. Predominately white chapters of Indivisible have emerged in every Congressional district in the nation, even in dark red flyover Texas. Democratic Party activists behind the pine curtain of East Texas who long believed that their dozen friends were the only liberals in their counties are now attending mass meetings with hundreds of people, black, white, and more. Indivisible groups in Central Texas came together for a “Roundup” complete with cowboy boots and frontier iconography. The chapters have mobilized ordinary people to call their representatives over pending legislation and are registering new voters across the state. As a result, activists are extending the map of contested races to unlikely places, including rural areas long considered safely Republican. They’ve also helped make Congress even more dysfunctional, stalling repeated efforts to repeal Obamacare and forcing even GOP officials to balk at much of Trump’s agenda. These may appear to be small victories, given the ultimate success of the Trump tax cuts, but slowing the juggernaut of an ostensibly united federal government represents a major win for the ordinary progressives who have long wandered in the Texas wilderness.
Even socialism is on the rise in Texas. The raw numbers of card-carrying Democratic Socialists of America is approaching or even exceeding 1912 levels, when Eugene Debs rallied insurgent farmers from a distant prison. Yet in contrast to the earlier Socialist Party, today’s DSA is explicitly anti-racist and anti-sexist and pro-LGBT. Its multiracial chapters in Texas are led by young people of color, many of whom are also leaders in Black Lives Matter or the immigrant rights movement. Still others hail from Our Revolution, the post-campaign organization inspired by self-proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. DSA members show up at mass marches and city council sessions, helping to propel the state’s most progressive politicians and legislation. In Austin in 2014, labor activist Greg Casar, a child of immigrants, became the first city councilman to represent the newly created District 4, a Latino enclave on the city’s southeast periphery. Three years later he led the grassroots insurgency against S.B. 4, and the City of Austin spearheaded the lawsuit against the new statute. He also officially joined DSA. In February 2018, the city council passed the nation’s first law compelling all public and private employers in the jurisdiction to provide paid sick leave to all workers. Casar was the sponsor. Drives to extend paid sick leave to Dallas and San Antonio are now underway, even as the Austin law is gummed up in the courts.
Unions in Texas won a series of large NLRB representation elections, and the state added over 80,000 new union members in 2017 alone, the largest annual increase on record. As it did in the early 1960s, the Texas AFL-CIO umbrella federation is throwing its resources behind coalition building. In addition to serving as an advocate for working people in the legislature — including the intersectional fights against S.B. 3 and S.B. 4 — the statewide body is supporting a wide range of innovative organizing initiatives. The symbolic face of big labor in Texas has also changed. In 2017, Texas AFL-CIO delegates elected Montserrat Garibay, formerly of the Texas Federation of Teachers, to its number-two post, secretary-treasurer, making her the first Latina executive officer in its history, and among the first people of color. The new youth wing, Young Active Labor Leaders (or Texas Y’ALL), is making connections with organizers from the Texas Organizing Project, United We Dream, and BLM-HTX. It has also allied with “alt-labor” groups, including the Workers Defense Project, an organization based in immigrant construction workers’ struggles against wage theft and industrial accidents. Indeed, the recently renovated Texas AFL-CIO building across the street from the capitol in Austin has served as the staging ground for countless protests over the last two years, earning the House of a Labor a new nickname: “The Headquarters for the Resistance.”
Beto O’Rourke’s campaign has made the race into a toss-up precisely because it is tapping into this groundswell of grassroots resistance against Trump. Immigrant rights, Black Lives Matter, liberals, and labor are all on the march, and they are beginning to work together in the streets and in the electoral arena. Beto’s success or failure hinges on his ability to convince black and brown activists that his concern for the state’s most marginalized residents is sincere. More important, he must inspire them to join his field operation, to gain their experience, knowledge, and connections in order to increase turnout dramatically.
There are signs that Beto could win. He has personally visited all 254 counties in Texas, energizing grassroots activists in the Indivisible network as well as county Democratic clubs whose leaders can’t remember the last time they saw a candidate in the flesh. This dogged effort promises to slow the bleeding in the rural areas and in deep red suburbs — something that previous Democratic hopefuls have been unable to do. Likewise, he seized a moment when the Trump administration extended the policy of separating families at the border, blasting the policy by drawing on his long record of fighting for immigration reform. O’Rourke has also been a longtime advocate for criminal justice reform, including ending the War on Drugs — a position stemming from his residency on the border. He is undoubtedly pro-labor and a supporter of women’s and LGBT rights. A celebrity-filled concert and rally in Austin drew 55,000 people, and Beto’s ground game is the best in a generation. Volunteers have opened offices and launched canvassing operations across the state well before campaign staff showed up to help. New digital technologies give every activist the ability to host phone banks at their homes and to carry targeted turnout lists on their smartphones as they walk their neighborhoods. It’s the largest, most systematic voter mobilization since Project VOTE in the 1960s. And Democratic candidates are contesting the whole slate of statewide elections, which isn’t always a given, with gubernatorial candidate Lupe Valdez especially making waves on the campaign trail.
Yet there is also ample cause for concern. Lupe is expected to lose her race by double-digits. None of the candidates near the top of the ticket is African American, denying the ticket some potential advantages among black Texans. Beto’s field operation among Latinos was surprisingly slow to get started despite the commonplace wisdom that their votes hold the key to his future. After decades of atrophy, the Democratic Party lacks infrastructure and has struggled to find enough experienced bilingual operatives for the campaign. Latino activists in Fort Worth, where I live, were unable to host a rally with Beto present in the city’s massive North Side barrio until the last month of the campaign, suggesting a lack of focus on this critical group. And as abhorrent as Democrats find Trump, it’s not clear that independents of any color will be motivated enough to go to the polls.
If history is any indication, Democrats and other progressives must embrace the strategies of earlier activists: abandon the turn toward moderation and start getting more radical. Deemphasize efforts to regain mythic independents and abandon the misguided focus on peeling away affluent white women from their Trumpist husbands. Instead, organize the many bases of the party’s left, including the formerly closeted Democrats that have organized Indivisible chapters in hostile rural and suburban territory. The counterintuitive lesson unearthed by the Democratic Coalition a half-century ago still holds true: the more explicitly liberal, the more aggressive in their tactics, the more dedicated to fighting racism — the more effective they become.
Whether Beto wins or not, for Texas to permanently flip, progressives inside and outside the state must pool their resources to build a massive, ongoing field operation in black and brown neighborhoods, a new coordinated effort capable of recruiting an army of blockworkers and furnishing them with grassroots “Resistance Kits.” Their organizing must focus on leadership development and turnout, not just registration. And its message must engage the morally driven insurgencies of our time, not just the typical politics of winning the next election. The Democratic Party must support diverse candidates — Latino and African American, gay and straight, women and men, trade unionists and other working people — drawn from the trenches of today’s social movements and committed to extending the gains of the civil rights struggles. They can’t shy away from immigrant rights, Black Lives Matter, LGBT struggles, and grassroots fights against economic inequality.
Activists today must learn from their own forgotten history and do the hard work of organizing block-by-block, building power for their communities, and forming coalitions across racial lines. Only then can they realize the goals laid out decades ago, finally defeating the cowboy conservatism and historic exclusion wrought by Texas boosters.
Max Krochmal, PhD, is the author of Blue Texas: The Making of a Multiracial Democratic Coalition in the Civil Rights Era(University of North Carolina Press, 2016). He is founding chair of the department of Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies and associate professor of history at Texas Christian University.
Featured image: [Harris County PASO mass meeting flier], text, 196u; (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth248714/m1/1/: accessed November 2, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Houston Metropolitan Research Center at Houston Public Library.
Banner image: Blackbird Film Co.