Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon
On July 26, 1924, Dr. Lawrence Nixon walked into Fire Station #5 to cast his vote in the Democratic primary. When he walked up to the election officials and showed them his poll tax receipt, they denied him the right to vote. He recalled that the two election judges, C.C. Herndon and Charles Porras, were his friends. They asked about his health, and proceeded to tell him that he could not vote. "I know, but I've got to try," he answered. The two men agreed to sign a statement that had been prepared by the NAACP saying that they had denied Dr. Nixon the right to vote because he was Black. I thought about him as I voted in the primary this morning.
Photograph from http://www.preservationtexas.org/endangered/east-el-paso-fire-station-no-5/
In Texas, whoever won the Democratic primary was sure to win the election. The primaries were important. In 1923, the Texas State Legislature passed a law making the Democratic primaries "white only." This law was part of decades of actions on the part of Southern states to disenfranchise Black voters, along with extra-legal violence that intended to keep African Americans away from elections following Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow.
When Dr. Nixon was denied the right to vote that day in El Paso, he and the NAACP took the election officials to court. The case, Nixon v. Herndon eventually made it to the Supreme Court where the ruling stated that Texas had indeed violated the rights of African Americans under the 14th Amendment. The Court went on to add that it would be constitutional, however, for the Democratic Party (rather than the State of Texas) to declare white-only primaries because they were a private organization. Dr. Nixon went on to challenge this again when he tried to vote in 1928. It was not until the 1944 ruling in Smith v. Allwright that white primaries would be ended forever.
The site where Dr. Nixon challenged his exclusion from voting in 1924 as it looks today.
For much of our history in this country, we have turned to "whiteness" to claim our rights. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo offered citizenship to the 60,000 to 100,000 Mexicans incorporated into the United States through war, yet the Nationality Act, also known as the Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted citizenship to "any alien, being a free white person." This was a conundrum for Mexican Americans. The 1887 case re Rodriguez stated that because the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo made us eligible for citizenship, we must be white. We were not treated as "white," facing segregation and myriad kinds of economic and social discrimination yet we had to claim to be white in order to be citizens. While Blacks were excluded by law, we were segregated by practice. There were "Mexican wages" and "Mexican schools." When the local El Paso bureaucracy tried to classify Mexican American births as "colored," there was great opposition from LULAC and other Mexican Americans.
As "whites," we were not excluded from voting in the Democratic primary and, in fact, El Paso's Democratic Ring relied on the Mexican vote in the first decades of the twentieth century. When Charles Porras denied Dr. Nixon the ballot that day, he was reinforcing his own sense of whiteness. Porras was a World War I veteran, a local LULAC leader, and went on to organize laundry workers and domestic workers into a kind of union in 1933. When he ruffled the feathers of El Paso's powerful by doing this, they asked for his deportation. There was only one problem: he was born in New Mexico.
When Dr. Nixon walked into Firehouse #5 that day in July 1924, he was challenging the exclusion of Blacks from the political process in Texas. But he was also challenging Mexican Americans to take a side. Would we claim whiteness (in opposition to Blackness) in order to claim some kind of rights? For decades to come, that would be the case.
For more information on Dr. Nixon, I recommend this book by Dr. Will Guzman, a graduate of UTEP's History Department.
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