- Civil Rights in the Texas Borderlands: Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon and Black Activism by Will Guzmán
In Civil Rights in the Texas Borderlands: Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon and Black Activism, Will Guzmán offers a sobering analysis of the opportunities for African Americans in the Southwest in the early twentieth century. The book uses newspapers, census records, government documents, and personal papers to detail the vast racial wasteland that was the Southwest. Through the lens of Lawrence A. Nixon, a black physician, the author shows how black professionals confronted racial violence and political disenfranchisement at a time when even the most determined efforts to secure advancements often came with demoralizing outcomes.
The biography unfolds in five chapters—from Nixon’s birth in 1883 to his tragic death in an automobile accident in 1966. The first two chapters chronicle Nixon’s early life and arrival in the borderlands. He was born in Marshall, Texas, where his father worked as a Pullman porter—a position that came with economic stability. Nixon graduated from historically black Wiley College and then Meharry Medical School in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1906 he opened his first practice in Cameron, Texas, but soon left because of increasing racial violence. The haunting experience of taking refuge in his office one night while an angry mob lynched Alex Johnson, a black man, for an alleged offense against a white woman caused Nixon to flee to El Paso, Texas. There, he settled in Segundo Barrio, a multiethnic part of the city. He practiced medicine there from 1910 until he retired in 1963.
In El Paso, Nixon became a community activist. Several chapters cover his impact on the pre-1950s civil rights struggle via the local branch of the NAACP, which Nixon cofounded in 1914. Nixon waged a principled legal attack against all-white Democratic primaries, the process that decided elections [End Page 726] in the one-party South. He was the plaintiff in Nixon v. Herndon (1927) and Nixon v. Condon (1932), in which the U.S. Supreme Court deemed these Texas primaries unconstitutional. These victories did not eliminate the practice, but they paved the way for Smith v. Allwright (1944), the landmark decision that outlawed all-white primaries throughout the South.
In straightforward prose, the work presents blaring reminders of how active terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan were in Texas, a state with the third-largest number of lynchings in the country, behind Georgia and Mississippi. The Klan had no less than 1,500 members in El Paso in the 1920s, “a small number of whom were police officers” (p. 71). The final chapter shifts focus to Nixon’s difficulties in obtaining funding for a black tuberculosis hospital and his membership in the controversial Southern Conference for Human Welfare.
Guzmán’s painstaking efforts provide the broadest possible context, at times to a fault, to tell a much larger story about the black experience in Texas. In some instances, his approach creates lengthy backstories, which mean the book’s subject—Nixon—often gets lost in the narrative. However, this worthwhile study contributes to borderlands history and the literature on black physicians in the civil rights movement, and it shifts the Jim Crow terrain to the American Southwest.