Bob Feldman : More African-Americans Enter Texas Politics, Prisons, 1974-1995

Hoe squad from Texas’ Clemens Unit in early 1970s. Photo from Texas Prison Museum.

The hidden history of Texas

Part 14: 1974-1995/1 — More African-Americans in politics, prison

By Bob Feldman | The Rag Blog | April 30, 2013

[This is the first section of Part 14 of Bob Feldman’s Rag Blog series on the hidden history of Texas.]

Between 1970 and 1990 the number of African-Americans who lived in Texas increased from 1.4 million to 2 million, but the percentage of Texas residents who were African-Americans remained at 12 percent. More African-Americans lived in Texas in 1990 than in any other state except for New York and California, and 90 percent of African-Americans in Texas lived in towns and cities by 1990.

Although the percentage of African-Americans in Texas who were registered voters dropped from 83 percent in 1968 to around 65 percent during the 1980s, the number of African-Americans who held political office in Texas increased from 45 in 1971 to 472 in 1992. And even though no African-American was elected to serve as a Governor of Texas or a U.S. Senator from Texas between 1970 and 1995, an African-American, Barbara Jordan, had been elected by 1972 to represent one of Texas’s congressional districts in the House of Representatives.

By 1985, 15 African-Americans had been elected to sit in the Texas state legislature, and by 1990 there were 12 African-American mayors and 138 African-American city council members in various cities and towns in Texas. In Austin, the first African-American man to sit on the Austin City Council since the 1880s — Berl Handcox — had been elected in 1971.

The first African-American mayor of Dallas, former Texas Secretary of State Ron Kirk (who later became the U.S. Trade Ambassador in the Democratic Obama Administration), was elected in 1995. In addition, between 1990 and 1992, an African-American woman named Marguerite Ross Barnett was the president of the University of Houston, and in 1991 the birthday of Martin Luther King was made a state holiday in Texas.

Yet between 1960 and 1984, the number of African-Americans in Texas who still owned their own farms had decreased from 15,000 to 5,000, and as late as 1993 “the University of Texas at Austin could count only 52 African-Americans among its faculty of 2,300 — about 2 percent,” according to Alwyn Barr’s Black Texans. In addition, “in Austin , expansion of the University of Texas into an African-American community displaced people into more crowded neighborhoods” between 1974 and 1995, according to the same book.

Around 30 percent of all African-Americans who lived in Texas in 1990 still lived in poverty; and in 1987, the U.S. Equal Opportunities Commission office in Dallas still received 5,800 complaints of racial discrimination from African-Americans who lived in Texas.

Of the 37,532 people locked inside state and federal prisons in Texas in 1985, 36 percent were African-American prisoners; and 29 percent of all the imprisoned people in Texas who were executed by the State of Texas in the 1980s and early 1990s were African-Americans. Historically, “261 of 316 men executed by Texas between 1924 and 1995 were black,” according to Black Texans.

In addition, while 9 percent of college students in Texas were African-American in 1993, between 1985 and 1991 the percentage of people locked inside Texas prisons who were African-American had increased from 36 to 41 percent. And in 1990, 40 percent of all African-American families in Texas were now headed by women.

The total number of people imprisoned in state and federal prisons in Texas increased from 16,833 to 127,766 (including 7,935 female prisoners) between 1974 and 1995; and, between 1991 and 1996, Texas — whose imprisoned population grew by 156 percent during these five years — was the state with the highest percentage increase in the number of people incarcerated during this historical period.

In the 1980 Ruiz v. Estelle court decision, “the entire state prison system” of Texas “was declared unconstitutional on overcrowding and conditions,” according to the ACLU National Prison Project’s 1995 “Status Report: State Prisons and the Courts;” and, in 1996, Texas — with an incarceration rate of 686 prisoners per every 100,000 residents — was the state with the highest rate of incarceration in the United States.

Between 1970 and 1985, the number of people who lived in Austin increased from 250,000 to 436,000 and “from 1980 to 1990, Austin’s Jewish-affiliated population more than doubled, from 2,100 to 5,000,” according to an essay by Cathy Schechter, titled “Forty Acres and a Shul: `It’s Easy as Dell,’” that appeared in Hollace Ava Weiner and Kenneth Roseman’s book Lone Stars of David: the Jews of Texas.

By 1988, around 90,000 people of Jewish religious background now lived in Texas, according to the website, and of the nearly 17 million people who lived in Texas in 1990, around 108,000 were now of Jewish religious background.

Despite the continued presence of local anti-war movement activists in Austin in the 1980s, “Lockheed Austin Division [LAD] was formed in August 1981 by Lockheed Missiles & Space Companies to develop military tactical support programs and systems” in Austin;” and the programs under development at LAD in the 1980s fell “under two general headings of command and control systems and target location systems,” according to David Humphrey’s Austin: An Illustrated History.

The same book also revealed that “the equipment developed through these programs [was] used to provide military commanders with current information on the location of military units within their operating area”“employment reached 2,000 by July 1984” and a year later the number of LAD employees: had “risen to 2,500.”

[Bob Feldman is an East Coast-based writer-activist and a former member of the Columbia SDS Steering Committee of the late 1960s. Read more articles by Bob Feldman on The Rag Blog.]

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