- Seeking Inalienable Rights: Texans and Their Quests for Justice
Seeking Inalienable Rights: Texans and their Quests for Justice, edited by Debra A. Reid of Eastern Illinois University, is a welcome addition to Texas history scholarship. The book is warmly dedicated to the late Robert A. "Bob" Calvert, faculty advisor to several of the essayists, Reid notes, because of his inspiring and reformist vision for Texas history, "Bob advocated for more study of the history of underrepresented Texans, and his enthusiasm for this cause proved infectious" (xi).
The essayists—Alwyn Barr, George N. Green, James Seymour, Patricia E. Gower, David K. Chrisman, Brian D. Behnken, Steven Harmon Wilson, and Reid—all contribute a diverse slate of brief research pieces. Green's work on railway unions and the influence of labor in state politics uncovers the nefarious legal mechanisms that railroad companies developed to combat the ability of injured workers to gain any sort of compensation. Reid's essay explores how African American activism persisted and functioned within a system of harsh racial and gender oppression. Seymour analyzes how the women's suffrage movement in Texas courted one type of injustice in order to combat another: "By the end of World War I, women suffragists in Texas . . . manipulated racial and ethnic biases in their favor, advocating [End Page 207] their enfranchisement to counter the votes of African Americans, Tejanos, and German Americans" (65). Behnken disappointingly offers a very one-sided interpretation that blames the lack of a unified, multi-race, civil rights movement in Houston during the 1950s and 1960s mostly on the allegedly pervasive anti-black racism of Mexican Americans. Although attempts at comparative civil rights history are important, this essay could have benefited mightily from a better understanding of the secondary literature on Mexican Americans.
Barr's essay on African American conventions is fascinating. Barr provides a unique and compelling window through which to characterize the African American community's political engagement and leadership and another way for Texas historians to get at African American political culture in the first decades after freedom. With regard to the urban development of San Antonio and Dallas, Gower documents a fundamental truth that racial minorities and the poor were constantly frozen out of access to basic city services. In arguing that both cities managed city growth in ways that "resulted in communities segregated not only by race but also by the presence of modern improvements," Gower connects race and class to urban development in a compelling way (80). Chrisman fruitfully explores tensions among Texas Baptists over desegregation and does not ignore theological influences. A prominent theme in this essay is the demise of moderate desegregation positions among white and black Baptist officials during the 1960s. Wilson cogently outlines the broad shifts in Mexican American civil rights strategy, why they occurred, and how these larger changes were interpreted at the ground level. This essay successfully walks the tightrope between the legal analysis of big, abstract concepts and how the important details of these concepts applied in local situations. Wilson maintains the focus of the collection's central theme in noting that any differences that may have divided both the Chicano Generation and the Mexican American Generation were ultimately outweighed by "the apparent need to struggle, over and over again, for civil rights." (160).
Debra A. Reid's edited volume Seeking Inalienable Rights: Texans and Their Quests for Justice is a useful book that provides an introduction to several different facets of the struggle against injustice in Texas history. These essays demonstrate that while not every struggle for justice is the same, each one should be a concern for all of us. This reviewer suspects that Bob Calvert, who enthusiastically published on various Texans including African Americans, Chicanos, and farmers, and in everything from monographs, articles, historiographical surveys, and textbooks, would be justifiably proud of Seeking Inalienable Rights.