- Blue Texas: The Making of a Multiracial Democratic Coalition in the Civil Rights Era by Max Krochmal
To state that Max Krochmal has produced a big first book would be an understatement, in both physical and historiographical terms. First, Blue Texas: The Making of a Multiracial Democratic Coalition in the Civil Rights Era is 537 dense, weighty pages of detailed and nuanced storytelling about Texas politics. More important, it rewrites the history of the modern civil rights movement, organized labor, and modern southern politics. Krochmal's thesis is clear, strongly argued, and well supported: the collaboration of black, brown, and white civil rights and union activists from the 1930s through the 1960s built a multiracial coalition that turned Texas blue, at least for a while, and created a roadmap to progressive change for later generations to follow. Small wonder that this impressive monograph won the 2017 Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians.
The author begins by expanding both the geography and the scope of the "long civil rights movement" (p. 8). In exploring an array of locally organized Latino campaigns from Houston to San Antonio in the 1930s and 1940s, he diversifies our notion of the roots of the modern civil rights movement. New events, personalities, and organizations take center stage. For example, a Mexican pecan-shellers' strike in 1938 planted the seeds that ultimately sprouted into cross-racial coalition building among Texas progressives, bringing to the fore women such as Emma Tenayuca and Alberta Zepeda Snid. The strike left a powerful memory of what civil rights unionism and multiracial collaboration could accomplish. That legacy took root in Houston during World War II, when black Texans such as Moses LeRoy, William J. Durham, and Erma DeLoney LeRoy combined campaigns for voting rights with crusades for economic justice, culminating in the Smith v. Allwright (1944) and Sweatt v. Painter (1950) U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Thus, Krochmal profiles new [End Page 208] sources of civil rights unionism, locating it not just among tobacco processing or packinghouse workers but also in a postal workers' union in Texas. And while many scholars identify the Cold War era as the nadir of progressive reform after the more halcyon days of the New Deal, Krochmal proves otherwise. Organizing did not stop or disappear; rather, his black, brown, and white subjects learned to work under the radar and were compelled by intraracial conflicts to collaborate across racial lines with their progressive working-class counterparts. Indeed, no scenario in Texas appears so bleak that it lacks some sort of redemptive lesson for progressives. Every campaign, strike, and crusade, whether successful or not, contributed to a movement culture of multiracial coalition building that grew and strengthened over time. Sit-ins, marches, boycotts, and rallies against segregation and economic discrimination stood alongside anti–poll tax campaigns, voter registration crusades, and electoral politics. Together, progressive Texans of all colors created an interdependent, holistic movement, one that used multiracial coalitions to crack open Texas's lily-white Democratic politics, began tearing down barriers to integration and equal economic opportunity, and ultimately produced "a social and political sea change in Texas" (p. 396). It would not prove enough, however, to outlast the fracturing impact of the choices of white liberals and of union leaders to prioritize electoral success over continuing to collaborate with multiracial working-class "liberation struggles" after 1965 (p. 396). Nonetheless, Texas became a two-party state by the late 1970s, Krochmal argues, and the fight for political democracy and economic justice continues. Indeed, he offers this story as a sort of "historical toolbox—in the hopes that we may find new ways to practice democracy in our own time" (p. 408).
Krochmal constructed this toolbox out of a veritable mountain of primary sources, including manuscript collections, corporate records, union records, newspapers, and government records, as well as over a hundred oral histories, with sixty-six of these conducted by the author himself (to be...