Labor, Civil Rights, and the Struggle for Democracy in Mid-Twentieth Century Texas
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What happens when the dominant binary categories used to describe American race relations--either "black and white," or "Anglo and Mexican"--are examined contemporaneously, not comparatively, but in relation to one another? How do the long African American and Chicano/a struggles for racial equality and economic opportunity look different? And what role did ordinary people play in shaping these movements? Using oral history interviews, the Texas Labor Archives, and the papers of dozens of black, brown, and white activists, this dissertation follows diverse labor, civil rights, and political organizers from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s.
Tracing their movements revealed a startling story. Beginning in the mid-1930s, African American and ethnic Mexican working people across Texas quietly and tentatively approached one another as well as white laborers for support in their efforts to counter discrimination at work, in their unions, and in the cities in which they lived. Such efforts evolved in different ways due to the repression of the early Cold War, but most organizers simply redirected their activism into new channels. By the close of the 1950s, new forms of multiracial alliances were beginning to take hold. Mutual suspicion slowly gave way to mutual trust, especially in San Antonio. There, and increasingly statewide, black and brown activists separately developed robust civil rights movements that encompassed demands not only for integration but also equal economic opportunities and the quest for independent political power.
The distinct civil rights and labor movements overlapped, especially in the realm of electoral politics. By the mid-1960s, what began as inchoate collaboration at the local level had gradually expanded from its origins in the barrios, ghettos, union halls, and shop floors to become a broad-based, state-wide coalition in support of liberal politicians and an expansive civil rights agenda. At the same time, African American and ethnic Mexican activists were engaged in new waves of organizing for both political power and civil rights, but they encountered opposition from members of their own ethnic groups. Thus the activists' efforts to forge inter-ethnic coalitions coexisted with protracted intra-ethnic conflict. In many cases distinctions of class and political philosophy and tactics mattered at least as much as did ties of ethnicity. Activists learned this lesson experientially: in the trenches, through countless small conflicts over several decades, they slowly separated themselves from their more conservative counterparts and looked to multiracial coalitions as their primary strategy for outflanking their intra-ethnic opponents. Meanwhile, organized labor and white liberals had been searching for allies in their efforts to wrest control of the Democratic Party away from its conservative wing. In the early 1960s, they reached the conclusion that black and brown voters would prove key to their own success, so they gradually transitioned toward civil rights organizing in order to build a coalition with the black and brown civil rights movements.
After decades of fighting separately and dabbling in experimental partnerships, veteran ethnic Mexican, African American, and white labor and liberal activists finally came together into a powerful statewide Democratic Coalition. Between 1962 and 1964, their collaborative campaign for civil rights, economic opportunity, and political power reached a fever pitch, resulting in the state's largest ever direct action protests, massive door-to-door electoral initiatives, and an ever-deepening commitment by labor to putting boots on the ground for community organizing. In the late 1960s the statewide multiracial coalition reached its apex and began to lose steam. At the same time, local multiracial coalitions continued to thrive, underpinning both the African American and Chicano/a urban electoral mobilizations and the rising Black and Brown Power movements. At the local level and in the short term, black, brown, and white working-class civil rights activists won--they achieved a degree of economic and political democracy in Texas that was scarcely imaginable in the age of Jim Crow just a few decades earlier. But as they won local battles they also lost the larger war.
Working-class civil rights organizers thus failed in the end to democratize Texas and America. Their goals remain distant to this day. Yet they were themselves transformed by their experiences in the struggle. Most transitioned from near-complete political and economic exclusion to having a voice. Their collective story indicates that scholars have much to gain from studying organized labor, electoral politics, and the African American and ethnic Mexican civil rights movements simultaneously. Doing so not only adds to the emerging historical sub-field of black-brown relations but also makes each of the individual movements look different. It reconnects class to the black freedom struggle, militancy to the ethnic Mexican civil rights movement, organized labor to community activism, and all three movements to the creation of today's urban politics.
Krochmal, Maximilian (2011). Labor, Civil Rights, and the Struggle for Democracy in Mid-Twentieth Century Texas. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/5681.
Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.