With the 2016 release of his first book, Max Krochmal stepped into the national spotlight as an authority on social justice and activism in the Lone Star State.
by Lisa Martin Photography by Carolyn Cruz
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by Lisa Martin
Photography by Carolyn Cruz
Is it a stretch to say that Blue Texas: The Making of a Multiracial Democratic Coalition in the Civil Rights Era represents your life’s work?
I started as a 25-year-old doctoral candidate at Duke University and spent the next 10 years on it. I received various fellowships from Duke, but TCU’s support during the last six years has been invaluable in terms of funding and time. I was also awarded a fellowship from the Summerlee Foundation of Dallas at the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies, which allowed me to take the 2013-14 academic year off from teaching to work on the book full time.
Part of what makes your new book groundbreaking is how you examine civil rights activism, politics and community organizing through the lens of four distinct groups: African Americans, Mexican Americans, labor unions and the Democratic Party.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, these groups came together as a coalition and managed to exert power. Ultimately, their efforts helped elect Ralph Yarborough, a liberal Texas Democrat, to the senate in 1957. They called themselves the “Democratic Coalition” and as a group, they talked about their differences in a way that often paralyzes 21st century organizations.
“We tend to think that Texas has this timeless, innate conservatism somehow connected to its frontier legacy. In fact, there has always been a large number of people fighting for a different vision for what Texas should look like.”Max Krochmal
The coalition’s legacy includes grassroots efforts for registering voters and getting them to the polls on Election Day. What other lasting impact did they have?
They succeeded in transforming the state’s electorate in a permanent way by redrawing the map of Texas politics so that today we have these deep, dark blue cities surrounded by red suburbs and rural areas.
Would you say the book also clears up some misconceptions about the overarching goals of the civil rights movement?
Yes. There is a group of scholars — myself included — who look to local people to change our idea of what the Civil Rights Movement was about. It wasn’t just about equal rights or gaining access to public accommodations such as eating a hamburger at a restaurant or attending a white school. Those things all mattered, but it was also about power and resources, economic opportunities, access to good jobs and fair play at the work site.
How did your decade of research shape your views on the Texas political scene, past and present?
We tend to think that Texas has this timeless, innate conservatism somehow connected to its frontier legacy. In fact, there has always been a large number of people fighting for a different vision for what Texas should look like. The fact that they lost most of those battles shouldn’t make us think they didn’t occur.
In the course of your research, you conducted some 80 interviews with Mexican-American and African-American civil rights activists. How did that shape your perspectives?
Blue Texas has a lot to say about black-brown relations and the process of coalition building. But what I find really inspiring are the stories of ordinary people, warts and all, who literally spent decades in the struggle for change. Even if they fell short of some of their loftier goals, that system of Jim Crow was forever removed because of what they did. Talking to these people, none of whom ever became well known, has taught me the capacity of ordinary people to change the world in lots of different contexts.
How does your work continue with these oral histories?
I’m the project director for a collaboration between TCU, the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of North Texas in Denton. It’s called “Civil Rights in Black and Brown: Oral Histories of the Multiracial Freedom Struggle in Texas.” I received a National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Research Grant for $200,000, half of which were designated matching funds that were released immediately since we had raised more than $100,000 from the Summerlee Foundation and the Brown Foundation of Houston. Our database currently includes the video oral histories of hundreds of activists, which students help collect.
Isn’t hearing from the activists first-hand also a big component of the TCU Justice Journey that you organize with Emily Farris, an assistant professor in the political science department?
In the Spring 2017 semester, the class will focus on the Chicano Movement and the expansion of Latino-Latina political power with an emphasis on immigration issues. In alternating years, we focus on the African-American experience. During spring break, the class with travel to Austin, San Antonio and South Texas, but it’s not a heritage tour where we only go to museums and sites. We give our students exposure to the rank-and-file leaders of these movements and let them learn directly from these people. It’s an opportunity we probably won’t have 10 or 20 years from now because those leaders will be gone.
How are you involved in building the new Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies program on campus?
It started in early 2015 when a number of students said we needed a program in African American Studies and Ethnic Studies. Students recruited me to become one of the main faculty organizers. Now TCU has a minor in African American/Africana Studies. What we really want is for [the program] to become a hub for change at the university more broadly, for cultural change when it comes to diversity. In order to be ethical leaders in a global society, our graduates need to have intercultural competency in whatever their field.
Editor’s Note: The questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.
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Campus News: Alma Matters
History professor’s new book examines the power of multiracial Democratic coalitions in mid-20th century Texas.