Civil Rights

By: Arnoldo de León and Robert A. Calvert

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: October 20, 2020

Issues of civil rights in Texas are generally associated with the state's two most prominent ethnic minorities: African Americans and Mexican Americans. Mexican Americans have made efforts to bring about improved political circumstances since the Anglo-American domination of Texas began in 1836. African Texans have fought for civil rights since their emancipation from slavery in 1865. Organized campaigns, however, were not launched until the early twentieth century.

Issues of immediate concern to Mexican Americans after the Texas Revolution centered around racist actions. In the 1850s, Tejanos faced expulsion from their Central Texas homes on the accusation that they helped slaves escape to Mexico. Others became victims of Anglo wrath around the Goliad area during the Cart War of 1857, as they did in South Texas in 1859 after Juan N. Cortina's capture of Brownsville. Following the Civil War, both the newly freed slaves and Tejanos faced further atrocities. In the 1880s, White men in East Texas used violence as a method of political control, and lynching became the common form of retaliation for alleged rapes of White women or for other insults or injuries perpetrated upon White society. Mexican Americans of South Texas experienced similar forms of brutality. The Ku Klux Klan, the White Caps, law officials, and the Texas Rangers, all acting as agents of White authority, regularly terrorized both Mexican Americans and Black Texans.

De facto segregation followed emancipation. Freedmen found themselves barred from most public places and schools and, as the nineteenth century wore on, confined to certain residential areas of towns. By the early twentieth century, such practices had been sanctioned by law. Whites never formulated these statutes with Tejanos in mind, but they enforced them through social custom nonetheless. By the 1880s and 1890s, furthermore, minority groups faced legal drives to disfranchise them, though Anglos turned to a variety of informal means to weaken their political strength. African and Mexican Americans faced terrorist tactics, literacy tests, the stuffing of ballot boxes, and accusations of incompetence when they won office. Political bosses in South Texas and other areas with large Mexican-American population such as the El Paso area valley, meantime, dominated by controlling the votes of the poor.

In 1902 the legislature passed the poll-tax law (see ELECTION LAWS), and the next year Texas Democrats implemented the white primary. These mechanisms disfranchised Blacks, and Mexican Americans for that matter, for White society did not regard Tejanos as belonging to the "White" race. Progressive reformers of the age viewed both minority groups as having a corrupting influence on politics. By the late 1920s, Texas politicians had effectively immobilized African-Texan voters through court cases that defined political parties as private organizations that could exclude members. Some scholars have estimated that no more than 40,000 of the estimated 160,000 eligible Black voters retained their franchise in the 1920s.

Newer Jim Crow laws in the early twentieth century increased the segregation of the races, and in the cities, Black migrants from the rural areas joined their urban compatriots in ghettoes. The laws ordinarily did not target Mexicans but were enforced on the premise that Mexicans were an inferior and unhygienic people. Thus Tejanos were relegated to separate residential areas or designated public facilities. Hispanics, although mostly Catholic in faith, worshiped at largely segregated churches. Blacks and Hispanics attended segregated and inferior "colored" and "Mexican" schools. As late as the mid-1950s, the state legislature passed segregationist laws directed at Blacks (and by implication to Tejanos), some dealing with education, others with residential areas and public accommodations. Gov. R. Allan Shivers, who opposed the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, went so far as to call out the Texas Rangers at Mansfield in 1956 to prevent Black students from entering the public school (see MANSFIELD SCHOOL DESEGREGATION INCIDENT). Although Marion Price Daniel, Sr., Shivers's successor, was more tolerant, the integration process in Texas was slow and painful. Supreme Court decisions in 1969 and 1971 ordered school districts to increase the number of Black students in White schools through the extremely controversial practice of busing.

Violence in the era until the Great Depression years resembled that of the nineteenth century. In the ten-year period before 1910, White Texans lynched about 100 Black men, at times after sadistic torture. Between 1900 and 1920, numerous race riots broke out, with Black Texans generally witnessing their homes and neighborhoods destroyed in acts of vengeance. Similarly, Tejanos became victims of Anglo wrath for insult, injury, or death of a White man, and Anglos applied lynch law to Tejanos with the same vindictiveness as they did to Blacks.

African and Mexican Americans criticized segregationist policies and White injustices via their newspapers, labor organizations, and self-help societies. Black state conventions issued periodic protests in the 1880s and 1890s. On particular occasions during the nineteenth century, communities joined in support of leaders rising up against perceived wrongs or in behalf of those unjustly condemned. Tejanos, for one, rallied behind Juan N. Cortina and Catarino Garza, and contributed to the Gregorio Cortez Defense Network, which campaigned for the defense of a tenant farmer named Gregorio Cortez, who killed a sheriff in Karnes County in self-defense in 1901.

The period between 1900 and 1930 saw continued efforts by minorities to break down racial barriers. In 1911 Mexican-American leaders met at the Congreso Mexicanista in Laredo and addressed the common problems of land loss, lynchings, ethnic subordination, educational inequalities, and various other degradations. In 1919 the Brownsville legislator J. T. Canales spearheaded a successful effort to reduce the size of the Texas Ranger force in the wake of various atrocities the rangers had committed in the preceding decade. La Agrupación Protectora Mexicana, founded in 1911, had as its intent the protection of farm renters and laborers facing expulsion by their landlords.

Much of the leadership on behalf of civil rights came from the ranks of the middle class. Black leaders established a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Houston in 1912, three years after the founding of the national organization; by 1930 some thirty chapters existed throughout the state. The association pursued the elimination of the white primary and other obstacles to voting, as well as the desegregation of schools, institutions of higher education, and public places. Tejanos established their own organizations to pursue similar objectives, among them the Orden Hijos de America (Order of Sons of America). The order was succeeded in 1929 by the League of United Latin American Citizens, which committed itself to the same goals of racial equality.

Mexican Americans and Black Texans continued their advocacy for equality during the depression era. In San Antonio, Tejanos founded La Liga Pro-Defensa Escolar (School Improvement League), which succeeded in getting the city's school board to build three new elementary schools and make improvements in existing facilities. Mexican Americans in the Gulf Coast area near Houston and in El Paso organized the Confederación de Organizaciones Mexicanas y Latino Americanas in the late 1930s, also for the purpose of eradicating racist policies. The Black movement, for its part, won increased White support in the 1930s from the ranks of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching and from such prominent congressmen as Maury Maverick.

After World War II, Tejano war veterans founded the American G.I. Forum, and by the 1950s, LULAC and the Forum became the foremost Mexican-American groups using the legal system to remove segregation, educational inequities, and various other discriminatory practices. In 1961 the politically oriented Political Association of Spanish Speaking Organizations joined LULAC and the G.I. Forum to pursuing the goal of mobilizing the Texas-Mexican electorate in an effort to prod mainstream politicians to heed the needs of Hispanics. African Americans, meantime, undertook poll-tax and voter-registration drives through the Democratic Progressive Voters League; the white primary had been declared illegal in 1944. During the 1960s the Progressive Voters League worked to inform Black people about political issues and encouraged them to vote.

During the 1960s both African Americans and Mexican Americans took part in national movements intended to bring down racial barriers. Black Texans held demonstrations within the state to protest the endurance of segregated conditions. They also instituted boycotts of racist merchants. In conjunction with the National March on Washington in 1963, approximately 900 protesters marched on the state Capitol. The group, which included Hispanics, Blacks, and Whites, attacked the slow pace of desegregation in the state and Governor John Connally's opposition to the pending civil-rights bill in Washington. By the latter half of the sixties, some segments of the Black community flocked to the cause of "Black power" and accepted violence as a means of social redress, though the destruction of property and life in Texas in no way compared to that in some other states. In a similar manner, Tejanos took part in the Chicano movement of the era, and some, especially youths, supported the movement's militancy, its denunciation of "gringos," and its talk of separatism from American society. The Raza Unida party spearheaded the movement during the 1970s; as a political party, Raza Unida offered solutions to inequalities previously addressed by reformist groups such as LULAC and the G.I. Forum. Members used demonstrations and boycotts and confrontational approaches, but violence of significant magnitude seldom materialized. The movement declined by the mid-1970s.

During the same period, the federal government pursued an agenda designed to achieve racial equality, and Texas Mexicans and Black Texans both profited from this initiative. The Twenty-fourth Amendment, ratified in 1964, barred the poll tax in federal elections, and that same year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act outlawing the Jim Crow tradition. Texas followed suit in 1969 by repealing its own separatist statutes. The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated local restrictions to voting and required that federal marshals monitor election proceedings. Ten years later, another voting-rights act demanded modification or elimination of at-large elections.

After the 1960s several organizations joined LULAC and the G.I. Forum in the cause of equality for Mexican Americans. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, founded in 1968, emerged as the most successful civil-rights organization of the late twentieth century. It focused on the state's inequitable system of financing schools, redistricting, and related problems. Working to see the increasing political participation of Tejanos and the removal of obstacles to Tejano empowerment was the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. Groups at the city level that sought to help out barrio residents included COPS in San Antonio, and EPISO in the El Paso area. The struggle for civil rights also produced a number of favorable court decisions. Black Texans won a judicial victory in 1927 when the Supreme Court ruled in Nixon v. Herndon that the white primary violated constitutional guarantees. When the state circumvented the decision by declaring political parties to be private organizations that had the right to decide their own memberships, Blacks again turned to the courts. Not until the case of Smith v. Allwright (1944) did the Supreme Court overturn the practice.

The post-World War II era came to be a time of increased successes for civil-rights litigants. The case of Sweatt v. Painter (1950) integrated the University of Texas law school, and in its wake several undergraduate colleges in the state desegregated. The famous case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 produced the integration of schools, buses, restaurants, and other public accommodations. Mexican Americans also won victories that struck at discriminatory traditions. In Hernandez v. State of Texas (1954), the United States Supreme Court recognized Mexican Americans as a class whose rights Anglos had violated through Jim Crow practices. In the field of education, the Delgado v. Del Rio ISD (1948) made it illegal for school boards to designate specific buildings for Mexican-American students on school grounds; Hernandez v. Driscoll CISD (1957) stated that retaining Mexican-American children for four years in the first two grades amounted to discrimination based on race; Cisneros v. Corpus Christi ISD (1970) recognized Mexican Americans as an "identifiable ethnic group" so as to prevent the subterfuge of combining Mexicans and Blacks to meet integration; and Edgewood ISD v. Kirby (1989) held that the system of financing public education in the state discriminated against Mexican Americans.

Much of the activity in civil rights during the last quarter of the twentieth century and the opening decade of the new millennium focused on consolidating the gains of previous decades. For example, African Americans and Mexican Americans registered to vote in unprecedented numbers, and members of both ethnic groups won election to major local, state, and federal offices. Issues such as affirmative action in higher education remained, but the civil-rights movement permanently changed the social and political landscape of Texas.

Evan Anders, Boss Rule in South Texas: The Progressive Era (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982). Alwyn Barr, Black Texans: A History of Negroes in Texas, 1528–1971 (Austin: Jenkins, 1973). Arnoldo De León, The Tejano Community, 1836–1900 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982). Arnoldo De León, They Called Them Greasers: Anglo Attitudes Toward Mexicans in Texas, 1821–1900 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983). Ignacio M. Garcia, United We Win: The Rise and Fall of La Raza Unida Party (Tucson: University of Arizona Mexican American Studies Research Center, 1989). Michael L. Gillette, "Blacks Challenge the White University," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 86 (October 1982). Michael L. Gillette, "The Rise of the NAACP in Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 81 (April 1978). Darlene Clark Hine, Black Victory: The Rise and Fall of the White Primary in Texas (Millwood, New York: KTO Press, 1979). David Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836–1986 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987). Cynthia E. Orozco, No Mexicans, Women, or Dogs Allowed: The Rise of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009). Merline Pitre, Through Many Dangers, Toils and Snares: The Black Leadership of Texas, 1868–1900 (Austin: Eakin, 1985). Merline Pitre, In Struggle against Jim Crow: Lulu B. White and the NAACP, 1900-1957 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2010). Guadalupe San Miguel, Jr., "Let All of Them Take Heed": Mexican Americans and the Campaign for Educational Equality in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987). James Smallwood, Time of Hope, Time of Despair: Black Texans during Reconstruction (London: Kennikat, 1981).

  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Associations and Movements
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Civil Rights, Segregation, and Slavery
  • Mexican Americans
Time Periods:
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II

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

Arnoldo de León and Robert A. Calvert, “Civil Rights,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 27, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 20, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: