Single-member districts key gain for minorities

By: Erin Quinn, Waco Tribune-Herald

Feb. 22, 2007

More than a decade after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech and four years after the city's schools were integrated, Waco still lacked fair representation among the city's decision-makers — and voters faced an uphill battle to make a change. Entire sections of town were not represented in the city council.

Until, that is, a group of nine — three black, three white, three Hispanic — came together to challenge the system.

It took two years, but an Austin judge ruled in their favor. And, suddenly, they were pioneers in Texas.

In 1950, soon after Louis Stewart became the first black person to run for a seat on the Waco city council, the city changed from a single-member district system to all at-large seats, in which each seat was voted on by the entire city.

The black community, living primarily in East and South Waco, found it difficult to elect a candidate who represented them.

"It was completely discriminatory of the voters of those districts," said Jane Derrick, a member of the League of Women Voters who was one of the nine Wacoans who took action.

The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People felt defeated, Derrick said.

A local NAACP representative was quoted saying: "We feel helpless and desperate. We are almost to the point of calling in outside help to organize us so we can become more effective politically — not violently. Every time we put up a candidate, the whites put up an opposing candidate that does not represent us and elect him."

In 1972, the League of Women Voters started a committee that challenged the system two years later by bringing suit against the city of Waco.

Austin lawyer David Richards — husband of the late Gov. Ann Richards — took on the case.

The petitioners were William Haliburton, Wilbert Austin, Lela Briscoe, Roland Arriola, Pete Arvizu, Frances Ortega, Kathy Patteson, Myrtle McKinney and Derrick.

On April 19, 1976, an Austin judge ruled in favor of the Wacoans and ordered the city to change to a single-member district system of electing the council.

'We set a precedent'

"We set a precedent," Derrick said. "That's why (Richards) agreed to take it on. At the time of this suit, there were not very many cities that had single-member districts. I think it had an impact statewide."

Slowly, school boards and county commissioner courts followed.

"It's hard to believe that went on for so many years," said Haliburton, 75, a longtime Waco civil rights leader.

The first city election after the decision saw six candidates vying for the East Waco district seat, he remembered.

"It finally gave everyone an opportunity to be able to select the representative that was concerned about where they lived," he said. "It encouraged a lot of people. It gave people the attitude that they could get involved too. And that had never happened before."

In turn, the small group of nine with the big voice helped change attitudes of the entire community.

"Once we began to communicate, we began to realize we weren't as different from each other as we were taught to believe," Haliburton said.

Still, there are strides left to be made.

"The civil rights movement as we knew it to be in the '50s and '60s is over," said Myrtle Johnson, a deputy district director for U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco. "Progress has been made, but the struggle continues." She cited issues such as health care, housing and the school dropout rate.

"I think we need a plan of action in 2007 with the Harriet Tubman spirit," Johnson said. Tubman was an escaped slave who helped free other slaves via the Underground Railroad in the 1800s.

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