Resources of Reaction: Houston’s Deferred Desegregation

That the urgent demand for reparations is conquering ground in the US (e.g. the DSA) and around the world (e.g. the Youth Climate Strike, Extinction Rebellion) suggests immense possibilities for the struggles before us. That it’s found a home in the rhetoric of politicians is both a testament to these advances as well as reason to reflect on the meaning and sources of fundamental change. Thinking backwards from reparations, the struggle for desegregation is singularly useful for exploring these questions. {…}

William Kellar, Make Haste Slowly: Moderates, Conservatives, and School Desegregation in Houston. Texas A&M University Press, 1999. 226 pp.

Review by S.U.

That the urgent demand for reparations is conquering ground in the US (e.g. the DSA) and around the world (e.g. the Youth Climate Strike, Extinction Rebellion) suggests immense possibilities for the struggles before us. That it’s found a home in the rhetoric of politicians is both a testament to these advances as well as reason to reflect on the meaning and sources of fundamental change. Thinking backwards from reparations, the struggle for desegregation is singularly useful for exploring these questions. Its relatively recent history, immense significance and the reaction it faced are all previews to a serious fight for reparations in the US. That’s why we should care about books like William Kellar’s rich chronicle of desegregation in Make Haste Slowly: Moderates, Conservatives, and School Desegregation in Houston.  Houston was a voracious economic and social powerhouse, whose growing weight accelerated rapidly after the Second World War, and like other cities, its civil rights battles became politically concentrated in the public-school system. Most of Kellar’s account details the molecular twists and turns of the struggle over the Houston Independent School District (HISD) – at the time possibly the largest school district in the country.  What ultimately happened in the schools anticipated developments beyond them, just as the previous era’s unfinished desegregation struggles hold important lessons for more ambitious ones today.  

The book’s first contribution unearths the density of white reaction following formal victories in Washington. The legal infrastructure that in 1954 briefly delivered the beginning of justice in Brown v. Board of Education immediately returned to obstructing it.  Lawsuits and legal battles waged by state and local governments suspended and disorganized efforts at desegregation that were still lip-service at best.  “Nullification,” a watchword of slaveholders in the antebellum south seeking legal weapons to erode anti-slavery laws from Washington, found a second life in public discourse.  Winning court skirmishes mattered less than eroding morale, tying up financial resources and securing time, which Houston’s segregationist bloc exploited to prepare obstruction outside the courts. Oil and electricity tycoons (including what is now Reliant Energy), hotel owners, media elites and judges, played key organizing and financial roles for white reaction.  Try picturing (not difficult) a contagion of popular #BlueLivesMatter Clubs following the election of a police disarmament activist and you won’t be far from the period’s “White Citizens Councils,” established to reconstitute white supremacy through popular will after Brown.

Open-mic demonstration in 1965, led by Reverend William Lawson, protesting segregation in downtown Houston. Curtis McGee/Houston Chronicle.

Red scare coalitions of previous years, with a serious base in Houston and a wealth of experience interfering with the schoolboard, incubated many of the tactics used to interrupt desegregation efforts. The Minute Women – a national organ of white reaction as well as an oil industry pressure group – was extremely active during this period, maintaining a strong base in Texas and in the ultra-wealthy River Oaks area of west Houston. Seeking to cripple the district’s tax base and deal a devastating blow to desegregation efforts, this uber-wealthy, uber-racist west side of the city would later attempt to secede from HISD under the banner of “Westheimer ISD.” The confederate Civil War re-enactment died in the courts, after African- and Mexican-American movement organizations as well as the Houston Teachers Association marshalled their resources to defeat the initiative.  Ultimately, judicial mandates were only as strong as the forces on the ground to impose them.

Kellar’s research also explores the weaknesses within Houston’s progressive leadership. That these sections of the book are dense and confusing reflect the choices of movement leaders who consciously selected, as Kellar acknowledges, the courts rather than the streets as their primary terrain.  As a result, in school boards and other official bodies, desegregation pivoted largely on disputes internal to the white ruling class: liberals and diehard racists. The structures of parliamentary bureaucracy offered stalling weapons which the two factions exploited to trade paper about whether to desegregate at a snail’s pace or at all. While Black office holders, movement leaders and the NAACP rightly and openly condemned the complete farce taking place at every level of government, the leadership struggled to advance a strategy that might reposition the movement to overcome it. 

The book’s greatest weakness is regrettably the author. Kellar professes anodyne desires for change, but then undermines them (whatever they’re worth) with craven absolutions of the old guard’s racism. Kellar’s worldview wouldn’t be complete without his rehearsed praising of the NAACP – only then to chastise the movement’s leftwing of Black Power. Curiously, the same Texas Southern University Kellar credits for initiating Houston’s sit-in movement and compelling immediate reforms was also the same one that launched a mass student uprising and university occupation, following the anticipated visit of a featured speaker, named Stokely Carmichael.(1) 

Student assembly in February during the 1967 uprising at Texas Southern University. Beginning as a protest against the dismissal of leftwing, SNCC-affiliated professor, Mack Jones, its energy eventually produced new demands for democratizing the university, reorganizing the curriculum, pay-rises for campus workers and ejecting security-personnel from campus. As the struggle spilled off-campus, involving church leaders and growing more ambitious, the Houston Police Department (HPD) met popular challenges to their authority with the most obscene violence. Ultimately, the arrest of the uprising’s leaders, the TSU Five, following HPD’s siege of a student occupied building at which the police emptied over 3000 rounds of ammunition, concluded the uprising in May of the same year. KPRC-TV footage.

The obstacles to a different outcome in Houston were serious: vicious state and police repression, a disciplined white ruling class, racism’s powerful base among white workers – to name a few. But the 50s and 60s followed a period of organizing in which local activists were beginning to find answers to the city’s challenges. Black teachers were organizing and winning equal pay with white ones. Civil rights organizations were building strong links with unionizing efforts across the Gulf Coast, particularly among Black dockworkers wielding enormous power at the Port of Houston.(2) Ever growing collaboration among NAACP leaders, labor activists and communists produced a civil rights unionism that state authorities could barely keep up with through physical intimidation and arrest.(3) The decision in later years to gamble mostly on the courts and electoral power reflected in no small way the Red Scare’s devastation to a local Left, starting to punch above its weight and dedicated to arming the fight for civil rights with class power. The choice effectively turned back on rebuilding the potential of the immense social forces that still existed in the city. While crucial victories followed in the coming years, strategies born in defeat meant that challenging re-segregation – the firing of black teachers, the proliferation of private charters, white flight and within-school segregation – would be much harder in the years to come.

At the heart of Houston’s desegregation struggle is a familiar contradiction.  The city contained colossal social forces for ushering earth shattering changes, but it ended up struggling to secure even the most basic. Exploiting hard-fought access to the ballot was essential, but those in power, Kellar admits, “found it difficult to enact even minor reforms in the district’s racial politics.” While Houston was far from bereft of all-star organizers such as the NAACP’s Lulu B. White and TSU’s Curtis Graves, its experience shows the limits of the best activism within the wanting strategy of larger forces. If the ruling class in the American South has inherited historical weapons for repelling progressive insurgencies, then even the most promising Northern formulas for leftwing success may breakdown as they march South. Debates seeking to advance the struggle for reparations are poignantly surrounded by intensifying re-segregation through gentrification, school closures, policing, prisons and more. If we’re more serious than those like Kellar about desegregation and even more serious about reparations, our fighting resources remain where history last left them – in the churches, neighborhoods and workplaces.

  1. Phelps, W. (2014) A People’s War on Poverty: Urban Politics and Grassroots Activists in Houston. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  2. Obadele-Starks, E. (2000) Black Unionism in the Industrial South. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
  3. Krochmal, M. (2011) Labor, Civil Rights, and the Struggle for Democracy in Mid-Twentieth Century Texas (Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation) Durham: Duke University.

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