History Professor Reveals Texas’ Liberal Roots
While many perceive Texas as a place dominated by “cowboy conservatism,” assistant history professor Max Krochmal has evidence of a robust liberal tradition in the Lone Star State.
In early 2016, the University of North Carolina Press is scheduled to release Krochmal’s book, Blue Texas: Labor, Civil Rights, and the Making of the Multiracial Democratic Coalition. The new work outlines the cooperation and successes of African Americans, Mexican Americans and white labor and liberal groups in Texas during their struggles for civil rights and economic justice in the mid-20th century.
“The book follows a dverse group of activists from the workplace to the neighborhoods and into electoral politics as they experimented in building coalitions across the color line,” Krochmal said. “Those coalitions were rooted in deep interpersonal relationships and broad social movements and gave life to a rather powerful liberal wing of the Democratic Party in the 1960s — and in the process those older coalitions teach us something about efforts to turn Texas blue today.”
Blue Texas connects civil rights in terms of specific objectives — such as the desegregation of lunch counters — to the broader aims of the movement, including the struggles for political power and economic opportunities.
“My book will be the first that connects those two civil rights movements to each other and to the electoral arena and to the history of working people and of organized labor,” Krochmal said. “And it will be one of the first to do that nationally — not just focused here in Texas.”
Blue Texas illustrates how African Americans, Mexican Americans and white labor unions worked together for tactical political alliances that produced a large-scale movement for liberalism in the state.
“When I went into it, I had no idea I’d end up writing about the Democratic Party and liberal politics, but that turned out to be where so many of these relationships were being forged and where some of the civil rights battles were being fought,” Krochmal said.
One thing that made the Democratic coalition so effective in the 1960s was participants’ ability to talk about differences in a way that often paralyzes 21st-century conversations, he said. “By putting those conflicts on the table and making them a point of discussion, they were able to circumvent them in a way that the present-day Democratic Party hasn’t figured out.”
Blue Texas shows that the multiracial wing of the Democratic Party had the greatest success when it was rooted in expansive and aggressive social movements. The success of the liberal wing of Democrats in the 1960s was rooted in the robust African-American and Mexican-American civil rights movements, he said.
“Today’s electoral politics are not often rooted in well-organized masses of ordinary people,” Krochaml said. “The book shows how it’s difficult for politicians to do much without that base. For people interested in seeing Texas moving in a more liberal direction, it’s not enough to just go vote. They also need to organize their communities.”
Encompassing almost a decade of research, Blue Texas draws from oral history interviews conducted by Krochmal and others. The research also included newspapers and manuscripts from private and public collections from across the state.
A part of Krochmal’s larger research focus is collecting oral histories from civil rights activists whose stories have not been recorded and preserved. He is the project director for “Civil Rights in Black and Brown: Oral Histories of the Multiracial Freedom Struggles of Texas, 1954-Present,” which is located at TCU’s history department and the library.
The collaborative digital humanities project includes faculty and library staff from TCU, the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of North Texas. Recently, the project received a $100,000 grant from the Brown Foundation Inc. of Houston and a $40,000 grant from the Summerlee Foundation of Dallas. The project is seeking funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and other private sources.
The researchers are creating The Civil Rights in Black and Brown Interview Database (crbb.tcu.edu), a free website of digital video clips. Instead of streaming full interviews or displaying transcripts — which can be burdensome to sift through — the site indexes videos and embeds metadata codes and tags, making it easy to search for detailed information in the collection as well as to add tags to help future users.
Krochmal and his co-directors are uploading and tagging 40 oral histories. During the summer, graduate students will collect oral histories in the Fort Worth-Dallas area, adding another 100 interviews by the end of the year. With additional funding, the project will expand its field research focus to another dozen areas across the state.
— Rachel Stowe Master