The years after World War II brought rapid social and political change to Texas, as they did across the United States. Rural areas lost hundreds of thousands of residents to growing cities, as suburbs boomed and Texas shifted from a majority rural to a majority urban state. Access to higher education expanded for many Texans, aided by the GI Bill’s promise to pay. Industries that developed here during the war provided jobs to returning veterans and new college graduates. And for those left out of the opportunity that followed the war’s end, the Civil Rights movement in Texas fought for greater equality – for African Americans and Latinos.
The first large population of African Americans in Texas arrived as slaves when Texas was part of Mexico. Until the end of the Civil War, their fight had been for freedom. When the Civil War ended, their fight for true equality began. In Texas, as in many southern states, new laws limited African Americans’ access to education, voting and other central aspects of public life. Those laws enforced widespread segregation, perpetuated high rates of poverty and created major obstacles to building better lives.
As World War II ended, many of the state’s Jim Crow laws remained in force, and new ones were passed. Across the state, segregation was the norm – in education, neighborhoods and places of worship; in public areas like stores, theaters and parks; and even in hospitals and cemeteries.
In the years following the war, the battle for equal rights gained support and power – fueled, in part, by returning veterans. Black neighborhoods became centers for activism. Lawyers, educators, business owners and activists led the way, working closely with neighborhood churches and local chapters of the NAACP. The list of Texas civil rights leaders is long: Maceo Smith, Carter Wesley, William Durham, Lulu White and many others. They partnered with Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall and other national civil rights leaders. And through it all, a group of newspapers written by black Texans and for black Texans called citizens to action and kept them informed.
Activists sought change in many areas: housing, the justice system, the workplace, access to public accommodations and more. But the primary focus was on the key areas of voting and education. For African American activists in the state, success in the battle over education began at The University of Texas School of Law. A postal worker named Heman Sweatt applied for admission there in 1946, and with the NAACP’s help, his case reached the US Supreme Court. In 1950, the court ruled in Sweatt’s favor – the beginning of a long process to integrate the university. Integration of local public schools came even later and met strong resistance. Nearly 20 years would pass before full integration of public elementary, middle and high schools.
The Latino fight for equal treatment and political power in Texas dates to the 1820s and 1830s, when a wave of Anglo-American settlers from the United States arrived to claim land here. Their numbers grew so quickly that Texans with Hispanic roots – many from families that had lived here since colonial times – soon became a minority in the state. The Anglos’ political power strengthened as their numbers grew. So, too, did prejudice against Hispanics – especially after the Texas Revolution against Mexican rule.
While laws enforcing segregation between whites and African Americans did not extend to Hispanic Texans, segregation by custom was strong. Like African Americans, most Latinos at the time lived in segregated neighborhoods, attended inferior segregated schools and found their voting power limited by the white majority.
World War II saw many Hispanic Texans serve – in the military and in related jobs on the home front. But access to good jobs, political office and education remained limited for many Latinos. As with African Americans, the fight for equality for Hispanics was led largely by people from the middle class. Organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens and the American G.I. Forum offered support. Those groups were joined by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund in 1968 and by Raza Unida in the 1970s.
Education and voting were a priority for many Hispanic civil rights activists, as they were for black activists. They found some success with lawsuits against public school districts in Corpus Christi, San Antonio and other cities. But some of the debates that began with those cases are still alive today.
In the decades after World War II, growing numbers of Latinos in Texas brought new political power. In 1970, about one sixth of Texans were Hispanic. By 1990, the number was one in four. By 2010, it was more than one in three. Together, the end of Jim Crow voting restrictions and the new demographics helped to put more African American and Hispanic candidates in office. Henry B. Gonzalez of San Antonio ran for Governor in 1958 and served in the United States Legislature from 1961 to 1999. In 1966, Barbara Jordan was elected to the Texas Senate – the first African American to hold a seat there since Reconstruction. In 1981, Henry Cisneros became the second Hispanic mayor of a major US city. And today, there are hundreds of African American and Latino officeholders from Texas, from local offices to the US Senate.
The postwar period also brought the beginnings of a new conservatism to Texas politics. For decades, Democrats had held every major state office and the loyalty of the vast majority of voters. To most voters, the choice was not between Democrats and Republicans. Instead, it was about which kind of Democrat to pick – a conservative like Allan Shivers or a progressive like Lyndon Johnson or Ralph Yarbrough.
When Shivers became Governor in 1950, the balance shifted to the right. And in 1952, after a dispute with the Truman administration over oil off the Texas coast, Shivers helped Eisenhower carry Texas – only the second Republican presidential candidate to win the state since Reconstruction. Still, Democrats would hold the Texas Governor’s office until Bill Clements took power in 1979.
For the next 20 years, Democrats and Republicans would share power in the state. But a shift to the right was steady. Since 1999, Republicans have held virtually every major office in the state.