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  • Texas and the Master Civil Rights Narrative: A Case Study of Black Females in Houston
  • Merline Pitre (bio)

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Merline Pitre, TSHA President, 2011–12.

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Over the past century, the power of historians to influence the public, to shape attitudes, and to eradicate popular prejudice has been amply demonstrated. The civil rights movement is a case in point. “Although exemplary studies and documentations abound and participants have produced a number of autobiographical accounts, the civil rights movement circulates through the American memory in forms and channels that are sometimes powerful, sometimes exaggerated and sometimes contested,” historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has written.1 Images of the movement appear and reappear on Martin L. King Jr. Day and [End Page 125] during Black History Month. But there is a silence in the stories of many of these images that renders the master narrative incomplete. As such, the narrative distorts and suppresses as much as it reveals.

This statement is especially true of black Texans and the master civil rights narrative. Except for the iconic figure of Houstonian Barbara Jordan, more often than not, black Texans are left out of the narrative. Just as Martin L. King Jr. is the narrative’s defining figure at the national level, frozen in the 1963 March on Washington, “I have a Dream Speech,” Barbara Jordan is the narrative’s defining figure in Texas, frozen in the 1974 House Judiciary Hearing Committee Speech on President Richard M. Nixon’s impeachment, stating “My faith in the Constitution is whole. It is complete. It is total.” Endlessly reproduced and quoted, Jordan’s speech retains its substance and popularity, but does not necessarily speak to the civil rights struggle in Houston or anywhere else in Texas. As such, we hear very little about a number of black Texans who helped to pave the way for Barbara Jordan while reckoning with Jim Crow or the black women of Houston on whose shoulders she stood.2

A good understanding of the civil rights movement begins with the rich and evolving literature since the 1970s; these studies have helped to underscore the movement’s legal, political, and social effects on the country and give credence to those who fought for change. Yet, when one peruses the master narrative on the civil rights movement, more often than not, black Texans are either omitted or given only passing recognition. For example, the NAACP recently celebrated its centennial, and in a pictorial history of its struggle against Jim Crow, there was no mention of Texas, although the cases of Smith v. Allwright (1944), which eliminated the white Democratic primary, and Sweatt v. Painter (1950), which set the precedent for Brown v. the Board of Education (1954), can arguably be regarded as the [End Page 126] precursors of the modern civil rights movement. In one of the first major works of the civil rights movement, Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters, the civil rights movement in Houston and San Antonio are mentioned only in passing while Dallas is not mentioned at all. Moreover, when one reads the narrative of the sit-in demonstrations of the 1960s, more often than not, one will find information on Greensboro, Baton Rouge, and Atlanta, but not Houston, Marshall, and Prairie View. Yet it was at Prairie View where the idea was born on December 19, 1959, when students from twenty-two Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) from Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi met with members of the NAACP on the campus of Prairie View A&M University to formulate plans for student demonstrations in respective southern cities. Also, until very recently, the freedom riders story from California to Houston (one in which Texas Southern students played a prominent role), drew very little attention from historians. In a recent study, Emilye Crosby’s the Civil Rights Movement from the Ground Up, Local Struggle, a National Movement, all states are mentioned save Texas.3

Many reasons have been given for this omission. The most prominent among them are that Texas did not have a galvanizing incident, and the freedom struggle in Texas was not part of or does not fit neatly within...


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