Op-Ed: Dr. Lawrence Nixon and the Tattered Road to Democracy in Texas

by | Jul 26, 2021 | Opinion, Voting

On this day 97 years ago, Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon walked to El Paso’s Fire Station No. 5 to cast a ballot in the Democratic primary. Dr. Nixon never missed a chance to vote; since moving to El Paso 14 years prior, he paid every poll tax and voted in every election at this very polling place.

But this time, he knew election officials would deny him a ballot.

The year before, in May 1923, the Texas legislature passed a law that barred Black residents from participating in Democratic primary elections. By this time in Texas, too many people of color could afford to pay their poll tax, and lawmakers needed a new way to guarantee “the purity of the ballot box.”

A Black man from Marshall — a small East Texas town with a strong Confederate heritage and Ku Klux Klan influence — Dr. Nixon was well accustomed to social and political restrictions placed on people of color. But as the son of a former slave, he believed the right to vote was sacred, and wasn’t going to give it up without a fight.

Prepared to be turned away, Dr. Nixon entered the polling place that morning on July 26, 1924, presented his poll tax, and requested a ballot.

“I know you can’t let me vote,” he told the election officials. “But I’ve got to try.”

Dr. Nixon’s persistence in the face of injustice ushered Texas into the national spotlight, igniting a 20-year legal battle to abolish all-white primaries across the country.

And it’s that very persistence that would prove key to winning that fight.

With the support of the NAACP, Dr. Nixon won two Supreme Court cases that challenged the practice of racial exclusion in primary elections. And while the Texas legislature would find new ways around the ruling — passing new statute after new statute to maintain the all-white primary — the Supreme Court would definitively rule the practice unconstitutional in 1944.

So on July 22 of that year, Dr. Nixon walked into El Paso’s Fire Station No. 5 and voted in the Democratic primary.

It’s with this level of persistence and tenacity that Texans must meet the existential threat to voting rights that is currently before us.

Today’s threat to democracy may not come in the form of poll taxes and all-white primaries, but it comes in the form of a Big Lie, trafficked by those who would dismantle our democracy in order to keep themselves in power. It comes in the form of 30 new anti-democracy bills in 18 states, most of which would make it harder to vote and some of which would even make it easier to overturn a democratically-decided election simply because those in power don’t like the outcome.

Reflecting on Dr. Nixon’s story against the backdrop of today’s context reminds us that the road to democracy is not linear, but rather tattered with advances and setbacks.

It took 21 years after the Supreme Court struck down the all-white primary for Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act and finally tear down other hallmarks of Jim Crow voter suppression. And yet, in 2013 — and then again earlier this month — the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in a slap in the face to Dr. Nixon and so many others who struggled, sacrificed, and even died to forge and defend the promise of multiracial democracy in this country.

No state has felt the twists and turns of the road to democracy quite like the state of Texas. In the eight years since the Supreme Court first diminished the power of the Voting Rights Act in the 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, Texas has closed over 750 polling locations primarily in communities of color; tried to implement unlawful obstacles to voter registration; purged thousands of eligible voters from the state’s voter rolls; imposed draconian prison sentences for minor — and in many cases unintentional — election law violations; and the list goes onand onand on.

But if Texas is once again ground zero in the fight for voting rights, it’s Texas that can once again help this country push our democracy forward.

And this time, the solution must come in the form of the For the People Act, which would go even further than the 1965 Voting Rights Act to fully guarantee every eligible American’s access to the ballot. It’s the only bill that can meet the threat to democracy before us by guaranteeing equal access to early voting and mail-in voting, establishing automatic voter registration, eliminating partisan and racial gerrymandering, making Election Day a national holiday, getting dark money out of our politics, and ultimately bringing millions of disenfranchised and disillusioned Americans into our democracy.

Texas House Democrats are entering their third week in Washington, DC fighting for these federal voting protections. After breaking quorum twice to deny the Republican-led legislature a vote on anti-democratic voting restrictions, they have demonstrated the level of persistence and dedication that each and every one of us must conjure up to meet the challenge before us.

For those of us here in Texas, that means showing up at the Texas State Capitol in Austin this Saturday, July 31, to rally for voting rights and fight for this democracy. Those who show up will be joined by some of the greatest civil rights and voting rights leaders of our time, who understand that the road to democracy is shaped by those like Dr. Nixon — who are willing to jump in the driver’s seat and define its path.

Click here to learn more about this Saturday’s voting rights rally at the Texas State Capitol.

Gina Hinojosa is a policy and communications specialist with the grassroots voter mobilization organization Powered by People.

Photo: Niyazz/Getty Images

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