The Democratic Progressive Voters League, organized in 1936 as the Progressive Voters League, is one of the oldest Black political organizations in the state of Texas. It developed in an era in which the right to vote for Black citizens was circumscribed by a white primary and a poll tax (see ELECTION LAWS). Both measures severely limited Black political activity in the state; the Progressive Voters League emerged as an organization that allowed African Americans in Dallas to influence local politics and exercise their rights as citizens.
Blacks in Dallas began organizing a political base in 1934. In that year the Dallas graduate chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity held a week-long series of symposia on citizenship that stressed the importance of paying the poll tax and voting as an obligation of full citizenship. Speakers suggested that Blacks in Dallas could solve the problems of poor housing, unemployment, overcrowded schools, and crime by voting and electing candidates sensitive to their needs. To act on the enthusiasm generated, such Black leaders in Dallas as Antonio Maceo Smith and Rev. Maynard H. Jackson organized the Progressive Citizens League. The league was organized to encourage Blacks to pay their poll taxes and to vote for candidates who would address the needs of Dallas Blacks. In 1935 the organization's president, Ammon S. Wells, ran a strong campaign for the state legislature, placing sixth in a field of sixty candidates. This election demonstrated the potential power of the Black electorate and prompted PCL leaders to organize another poll tax-payment campaign. The PCL was instrumental in securing federal funds to erect the Hall of Negro Life at the Texas Centennial.
In 1936 the Progressive Citizens League was renamed the Progressive Voters League to reflect the organization's emphasis on paying the poll tax and voting as key objectives for achieving Black citizenship rights in Dallas. In the same year the league coordinated the efforts of over 100 Black organizations in Dallas in a massive poll tax-payment campaign. The league registered almost 7,000 voters and organized the Black electorate into a voting bloc that carried the balance of power in the 1937 Dallas City Council elections. The league supported the Forward Dallas Association's slate of candidates over those of the Citizens Charter Association and assisted the former association in winning a majority of the seats on the Dallas City Council. The Citizens Charter Association had dominated Dallas city government since 1930 and did so again until 1970.
The 1937 election established the Progressive Voters League as a viable Black political organization and set the tone for its activities for the next fifty years. The Forward Dallas Association rewarded the support provided by the league with a new Black high school, more jobs for Blacks in city government, and consideration of Blacks for police jobs in the city. With this success, the league continued to register and organize Black voters in the city, to endorse candidates in local elections, and to encourage Black participation in the political process locally, statewide, and nationally.
After the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People won Smith v. Allwright in 1944 and eliminated the state's Democratic white primary, the Progressive Voters League attempted to become a statewide organization and align itself with the Democratic party. As early as 1940 Maynard Jackson, the league's first president, made attempts to expand statewide. As late as 1943 his efforts had proved futile. After 1944, however, the leaders of the league were successful in organizing statewide and even nationwide. But both the state and national organizations collapsed after 1950. After the victory in the Smith case, the league's leaders split over whether they should align with and accept funding from the Democratic party or remain nonpartisan. Those in opposition resisted joining the Democrats and maintained the league as a nonpartisan organization until 1948. In that year the league chartered itself in Dallas County as the Democratic Progressive Voters League, and since then it has supported the Democratic party locally and nationally.
In the late 1980s the Democratic Progressive Voters League of Dallas County primarily interviewed and endorsed candidates for local and state elections. Although it was no longer the mass organization that it was in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, it maintained influence in local politics. In 1985 the league's president, John Wiley Price, used the organization as the political base for his successful campaign to become county commissioner. He became the first Black to serve on the commissioners' court in Dallas County.