African Americans and Politics

By: Chandler Davidson

Type: Overview Entry

Published: June 1, 1995

Updated: September 29, 2020

Racial conflict is a basic feature of Texas history. From 1865 onward its primary political manifestation has been the struggle of African Americans to vote, have their ballots fairly counted, elect their preferred candidates, develop effective coalitions with other groups, and thereby achieve equality of opportunity in a White-dominated society that, from its beginning, relegated people of color to the status of an inferior caste. In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, Blacks made up 30 percent of the state's population. Most were slaves, and even the few who were free could not vote. Emancipation was announced in Texas on June 19, 1865 (Juneteenth), but the newly formed government withheld Black political rights. An all-White constitutional convention in 1866 refused to grant suffrage even to literate Blacks. The all-White legislature then refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment forbidding states from depriving citizens of equal protection of the laws. Seeking to restore plantation discipline, it passed Black Codes that severely restricted freedmen's economic options. And it prohibited voting, officeholding, jury service, and racial intermarriage by freedmen.

These actions by White lawmakers, similar to those in other Southern states, prompted the Republican-dominated Congress to respond with a series of statutes applicable to the former Confederacy, including one to enfranchise Black males. The implementation of these statutes was known as Congressional Reconstruction. In Texas the Republican reformers, called radicals, entered into an uneasy alliance with the great majority of freedmen. Another Republican faction, the conservatives, sometimes joined with Democrats, who generally opposed most civil rights for Blacks.

In July 1867 twenty Whites and 150 Blacks attended a Republican convention in Houston, where they endorsed free common schools and free homesteads from public lands for Blacks and Whites alike. Thus began a decades-long tradition of Black Republicanism in the state. Despite widespread violence and intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan and Democrats, many Black men registered for the first election in which they could participate-the 1868 referendum on whether to hold another constitutional convention and elect delegates. More Blacks than Whites cast ballots, and, with their White allies, they overcame the opposition of the majority of White voters and voted to hold another convention. The Convention of 1868–69, dominated by Republicans, included ten African-American delegates out of ninety. Among them was George T. Ruby of Galveston, a Northern journalist and teacher who had moved to Texas to work in freedmen's schools; he became a well-known Republican leader. All ten were active on committees and presented important resolutions. Though frustrated in attempts to secure certain constitutional safeguards for their people, they contributed to the accomplishments of the convention, which paved the way for the readmission of Texas to the Union in March 1870.

The election of Edmund J. Davis, a White radical, as governor in 1869 gave Blacks additional influence, as did the election of two Black state senators-G. T. Ruby and Matthew Gaines, a minister and former slave-and twelve representatives to the Twelfth Legislature. Dominated by reform-minded Republicans, this body ratified the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments and passed several important though controversial laws, including ones establishing a militia and the Texas State Police, open to Blacks, to control lawlessness and violence in the state. The legislature also passed a homestead act, a measure protecting homesteads from forced sale, and a law establishing public schools.

Reconstruction ended in 1873 with the defeat of Davis, an event hailed by a former governor as "the restoration of White supremacy and Democratic rule." The number of Blacks in the legislature dropped, and White Democrats began reestablishing control of Texas politics. This was accomplished primarily by the Constitutional Convention of 1875, which was accompanied by continuing violence and intimidation aimed at Blacks. In a state now controlled by White Democrats, African Americans experimented with three options: involvement in the Republican party, alliance with factions of Democrats, and collaboration with third parties. None of these proved satisfactory, however, given Blacks' worsening legal status and shrinking share of the state's population. (Black Texans declined from 31 to 20 percent of the population between 1870 and 1900.) African-American activity in the Republican party focused on preventing the conservative faction from gaining control and driving out Blacks, who in the 1880s formed 90 percent of the party's membership. By attracting like-minded Whites, conservative Republicans hoped to compete effectively with the Democrats. Norris Wright Cuney of Galveston, an early protégé of Senator Ruby, was the astute leader of the Black Republicans from the death of E. J. Davis in 1883 to his own death in 1897. Black influence in the party of Lincoln was sharply curtailed at the turn of the century, when a combination of factors-mainly the struggle among Black leaders over the inheritance of the late Cuney's mantle and the success of the conservatives' efforts to obtain control of federal patronage-led to the lily white movement. The conservative Republicans, who now called themselves "lily whites," gained ascendancy over the Black and Tans, the Negro faction of the party.

Alliances with Democrats also offered limited prospects. Their party, after all, was the home of most White supremacists. For tactical reasons, however, Blacks sometimes "fused" with a Democratic faction. Though he was a Republican national committeeman in 1892, Cuney, for example, urged Blacks to support George Clark, the conservative Democratic candidate, against the economically progressive governor, James S. Hogg, in hopes of dividing the Democrats and increasing Cuney's influence. Only about half the Black vote went to Clark, however, and Hogg was reelected.

Alliances with third parties proved alluring but were also unsuccessful. The Greenback party, addressing farmers' economic troubles, attracted Black support in 1878, shortly before it collapsed. The People's party also garnered Black support in statewide races-roughly 20, 35, and 50 percent of the Black vote in 1892, 1894, and 1896, respectively. This upsurge came from the educational efforts of the Colored Farmers' Alliance, the organizing work and oratorical skills of such Black Populists as John B. Rayner, a schoolteacher from Calvert, and the Populists' inclusion of platform planks addressing Blacks' concerns and election of Blacks to party-leadership posts. Ironically, these actions probably contributed to the defeat of Populism and Black disfranchisement soon thereafter.

Disfranchisement, however, had been under way since the end of Reconstruction. Intimidation, harassment of Black leaders, violence (including the lynching of 300 to 500 Blacks late in the century), the growth of Jim Crow institutions, repeated efforts by conservative legislators to pass a poll-tax law from 1875 onward, and Democrats' fear of the third parties' biracial appeal culminated in the effective removal of Blacks from the electorate. The last of forty-two Black Reconstruction-era legislators, Robert L. Smith of Colorado County, attended his final sessions in 1897, offering an impassioned resolution on May 4 against lynching. Gerrymandering had cut the numbers of Black legislators sharply. Violence had taken a toll on Black voter turnout even before the constitution was amended in 1902 to impose the poll tax. But the tax, which fell hardest on those least able to pay, had an independent effect, as did restrictive registration laws mandated in 1903 and 1905, and county Democratic leaders' widespread adoption of the white primary. As nomination by the Democratic party was tantamount to election, the white primary denied most Blacks the ballot in state contests. By 1906 African Americans were no longer a significant force in most elections.

Black Texans nonetheless continued to pursue their rights through such institutions as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, established in 1910; Black civic, political, religious, business, and professional groups; a few interracial groups; the urban Black press, a source of information and an instrument of social protest; and the courts, a somewhat more promising avenue for progress than the other branches of government. The NAACP was especially important. Until 1923 the white primary operated at the discretion of county executive committees, and Blacks in some areas could still vote in Democratic contests. That year, however, the legislature passed a law preventing Blacks from participating in any Democratic primary election. Lawrence A. Nixon, a Black El Paso physician, challenged the law with the help of NAACP legal assistance and funding. The United States Supreme Court, in Nixon v. Herndon (1927), invalidated the statute as violating the equal-protection clause. The state legislature then shifted authority to prohibit Black participation in political parties' state executive committees. The Democratic committee limited primary participation to "White Democrats...and none other." Dr. Nixon sued and won again in the Supreme Court, which held in Nixon v. Condon (1932) that the new law was just an extension of the earlier one. The Democratic committee, the court reasoned, lacked authority to act for the party and was acting for the state. But the party's state convention had such authority, the court said. Predictably, the state convention adopted a rule excluding Blacks from its primaries. Houstonian Richard Randolph Grovey, against the advice of the national NAACP, attacked this rule in Grovey v. Townsend (1935), arguing that the Democratic party was an instrument of the state, not a voluntary association. This time the Court, quoting a Texas Supreme Court opinion holding that political parties were voluntary associations, let the law stand.

A major upswing in Black Texans' involvement in the NAACP occurred in the 1930s. At the initiative of Antonio Maceo Smith, a Black Dallas businessman, the State Conference of NAACP Branches was formed in 1937. Mobilizing civic leaders and lawyers in Black communities, the conference revived the five state branches and before long had more than 170 local chapters. It cooperated with the national office to finance and execute successful legal attacks on the Texas white primary and racial segregation at the University of Texas law school and to file legal actions throughout the state attacking segregated municipal facilities, juries, and schools. Leaders in the state conference during this period, in addition to Smith, were Juanita Craft of Dallas, William J. Durham of Sherman, and Carter Wesley, Lulu White, and Christia Adair of Houston. White and Craft were effective fieldworkers who helped revive dormant local chapters, raise money, and develop strategy. Conference activity declined sharply after 1956 when the state, in reaction to the conference's many achievements, temporarily enjoined the NAACP from doing business in Texas and charged it with violating the state's barratry statutes.

But in the 1940s the state NAACP was boldly advancing. Lonnie Smith, a Houston dentist, was prevented from voting in the Democratic primary. Represented by local and national attorneys, including Texan W. J. Durham and Thurgood Marshall, general counsel of the newly formed NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Smith filed suit in 1942. In Smith v. Allwright (1944) the Supreme Court overrode its prior reasoning in Grovey, holding that the Democratic primary, because regulated by Texas law, was an agency of the state and violated the Fifteenth Amendment's protection against racial discrimination in voting. The white primary, by then the major Texas disfranchising barrier, was dead. By 1946 75,000–100,000 Blacks-at a maximum, 20 percent of those eligible-voted in the primary, compared to 33 percent of Whites.

In earlier years, while still locked out of the Democratic organization, Blacks had also been marginalized in the Republican party by the dominant lily whites. In 1932, Texas Black precincts began to vote for the national Democratic ticket, a trend encouraged by the New Deal's popularity. After Smith was decided, Blacks quickly joined the emerging liberal wing of the Texas Democrats, who were locked in conflict with party conservatives, and they supported liberal Ralph Yarborough in his campaigns for governor and United States senator from 1952 to 1972. They also supported other liberal White and Hispanic candidates in Democratic primaries and joined the liberals in party conventions. Several Black Texans ran for office after Smith, but two of the first to succeed were Garlington J. Sutton, who won a post in 1948 on the governing board of a San Antonio junior-college district, and Hattie Mae White, who in 1958 won a Houston school-board post with a plurality of the votes but less than a majority. By 1965, the year Congress passed the Voting Rights Act and more than two decades after the end of the white primary, at most only a half-dozen Black Texans held office.

As a result of legislative reapportionment in 1966-mandated by the Supreme Court's recent one-person, one-vote decisions-Blacks were nominated for posts above the level of precinct chairmen in the Texas Democratic primary for the first time, at least, in this century. Barbara Jordan, a young Houston attorney, won election that year from a newly drawn single-member senatorial district in which Blacks and Mexican Americans made up about half the population, after twice having unsuccessfully run at large in Harris County-which had a 20 percent Black population-for a seat in the legislature. She was elected to Congress in 1972 from a district less than half White. In 1973 she was one of the first two Southern Blacks to serve in Congress since 1901; she went on to a distinguished political career, achieving national recognition on the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate hearings after the 1972 presidential election. Two Blacks won seats in the Texas House in 1966-Curtis Graves of Houston and Joe Lockridge of Dallas. Each succeeding legislature also had Black members. In 1993 two Black senators and fourteen Black representatives composed 9 percent of the legislature, while about 11 percent of the Texas voting-age population was Black. All Black members were Democrats that year, and all were elected from districts in which Blacks, or Blacks and Hispanics, were a majority.

Across the state African-American elected officials increased from fewer than seven in 1964 to 472 in 1993. These included Morris Overstreet, a justice on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the first Black elected statewide in Texas history, who in 1990 had defeated a single opponent, a Black appointed by the Republican governor to fill an unexpired term. Among the other officials were 2 members of Congress, 13 mayors, 128 city-council members, 85 school-board members, and 17 county commissioners. The three Black members of Congress elected since Jordan-Mickey Leland and Craig Washington of Houston and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas-had served first in the legislature; all were elected from districts in which Whites were a minority.

The increase in Black officeholding would have been much smaller without extensive revision of discriminatory election laws, beginning in the 1960s. The Twenty-fourth Amendment abolished the poll tax in federal elections in 1964, and the Supreme Court overturned its use in state and local elections in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections (1966). The onerous annual voter registration system that a conservative-dominated legislature had substituted when the poll tax was invalidated was ruled unconstitutional in Beare v. Smith (1971). The Supreme Court in Bullock v. Carter (1972) struck down the state's candidate filing fees, which the Court said weighed "more heavily on the less affluent segment of the community." Another form of discrimination was attacked in a series of vote-dilution cases. In White-majority jurisdictions where Whites voted as a bloc against candidates preferred by most Black or Mexican-American voters, the Whites could systematically deny election to the minorities' candidates, who often belonged to minorities themselves. This occurred when certain election structures or practices existed. These were mostly of two kinds: at-large systems with a majority-runoff requirement; or, where elections were by district, gerrymandering. In either case, White bloc voting often defeated candidates of minority voters and weakened their political strength. The Supreme Court first found minority vote dilution unconstitutional in White v. Regester (1973), which held that the round of legislative redistricting in Texas during the 1970s violated the equal-protection clause. As a remedy, district boundaries were redrawn in San Antonio and Dallas. Further litigation soon attacked other districts and produced a sharp increase in Black and Hispanic legislators in the 1970s. In 1975 Congress extended to Texas coverage of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, requiring all proposed changes in voting procedure, including redistricting, to be precleared by the United States attorney general. Justice Department oversight diminished gerrymandering against minorities by the legislature and other entities such as cities and counties. In addition, minority plaintiffs invoked the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act to sue numerous cities, school districts, county commissioners' courts, and other entities, alleging minority vote dilution and demanding changes from at-large to district elections or the establishment of more fairly drawn districts. From the early 1970s on, these suits enabled many Blacks and Hispanics to win office. In addition, the Justice Department from 1975 on refused to preclear numerous proposed election changes in Texas that would have undercut minority voting strength.

Most of these measures securing Black and Hispanic voting rights were fashioned during the so-called Second Reconstruction, the period beginning with Brown v. Board of Education (1954), when several federal statutes and judicial decisions were formulated to destroy the Jim Crow system, discourage racial discrimination, and enable Southern Blacks to participate equally in politics. The new laws were largely a response to the Black-led civil-rights movement, in which Texans, both Black and White, participated. The Second Reconstruction also led to a party realignment in Texas. As Senate majority leader, Lyndon B. Johnson guided the 1957 Civil Rights Act through the upper house; and as president he played a crucial role in the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which abolished the Jim Crow system of segregated public accommodations, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Ralph Yarborough, the only Democratic United States senator from Texas from 1961 to 1971, was the only Southern senator to support the 1964 bill and only one of three Southern senators to support the Voting Rights Act. Backing epochal civil-rights policies in the late 1950s and 1960s, these two Texas Democrats, dependent on a solid Black vote, were among the leaders of the national party's mainstream. At the same time, virtually no Texas Republican leader supported civil-rights legislation of the era. Senator John Tower opposed both the 1964 and 1965 bills. George H. W. Bush, opposing Yarborough for the Senate in 1964, attacked him for supporting the Civil Rights Act. That year Bush and Tower backed Barry Goldwater, who opposed the Civil Rights Act as a violation of states' rights and who was the first modern Republican presidential candidate to employ a "Southern strategy" in a campaign appealing to conservative Whites while largely ignoring Black voters. The polarized positions of party leaders on civil-rights issues resulted in a gradual exodus of White voters from the Democratic party, the strengthening of Black and Hispanic ties to it, and a remarkable growth in Republican voting and officeholding. The Texas Democratic party became disproportionately Black, Hispanic, and liberal, while the Republicans remained overwhelmingly White and conservative.

If a survey of the history, status, and prospects of Black Texans had been conducted as the 1990s began, it would have revealed that many hard-fought battles for political equality had been won, even as challenging problems remained and others loomed on the horizon. The right of Blacks to vote was obtained during Reconstruction, lost at the turn of the century, and won again long decades later. The same was true for their ability to hold office and participate in government. As a racial minority that had made striking social and economic progress since the 1940s even while struggling with serious social problems-including discrimination, poverty, unemployment, crime, family breakdown, infant mortality, and drug abuse-Black Texans attempted to shore up and expand their own community institutions while looking to politics and government for additional support. Yet even when they coalesced at the polls and in governmental bodies with White and Mexican-American Democrats-who were their most reliable allies from the 1950s onward-the coalition's size was often insufficient to achieve such goals as equal school funding, a more progressive tax base, adequate protection from discrimination, fair provision of municipal services, and similar items on Black Texans' long-term egalitarian agenda. Moreover, the rapid growth of the Mexican-American population in Texas in the latter part of the century, partly from illegal immigration, encouraged the perception that scarce jobs were being taken by newcomers from Mexico. This, along with clashes of culture between the two groups in inner-city neighborhoods and struggles over political turf, created tensions that threatened to weaken the liberal Democratic coalition. It was thus not only with pride in past achievements against great odds but also with a wariness of what the political future held in store that thoughtful African Americans anticipated the new century. See also RECONSTRUCTION, ELECTION LAWS.

Melvin J. Banks, The Pursuit of Equality: The Movement for First Class Citizenship among Negroes in Texas, 1920–1950 (Ph.D. dissertation, Syracuse University, 1962). Alwyn Barr, Black Texans: A History of Negroes in Texas, 1528–1971 (Austin: Jenkins, 1973). Alwyn Barr, Reconstruction to Reform: Texas Politics, 1876–1906 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971). William Joseph Brophy, The Black Texan, 1900–1950: A Quantitative History (Ph.D. dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1974). Barry A. Crouch, The Freedmen's Bureau and Black Texans (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992). Chandler Davidson, Race and Class in Texas Politics (Princeton University Press, 1990). Michael L. Gillette, The NAACP in Texas, 1937–1957 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1984). Bruce Alden Glasrud, Black Texans, 1900–1930: A History (Ph.D. dissertation, Texas Tech College, 1969). Darlene Clark Hine, Black Victory: The Rise and Fall of the White Primary in Texas (Millwood, New York: KTO Press, 1979). Barbara Jordan and Shelby Hearon, Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait (Garden City, New Jersey: Doubleday, 1979). J. Morgan Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restrictions and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880–1910 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974). Merline Pitre, Through Many Dangers, Toils and Snares: The Black Leadership of Texas, 1868–1900 (Austin: Eakin, 1985). Lawrence D. Rice, The Negro in Texas, 1874–1900 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971). James Smallwood, Time of Hope, Time of Despair: Black Texans during Reconstruction (London: Kennikat, 1981). James R. Soukup, Clifton McCleskey, and Harry Holloway, Party and Factional Division in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964).

  • Peoples
  • African Americans
Time Periods:
  • Reconstruction
  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Houston
  • North Texas
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Chandler Davidson, “African Americans and Politics,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 23, 2022,

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June 1, 1995
September 29, 2020

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