The political narrative in El Paso today is that the local Democratic Party is the party of inclusiveness and progressiveness. It is a narrative that has been carefully cultivated for decades. Lost in the re-envisioned narrative is the historical truth. There was a time that El Paso’s Democratic Party fought to allow only White people to vote in the primaries. It was a Black El Pasoan who forced the Democratic Party to become inclusive. Lawrence Nixon forced the local Democrats to become progressive, although many resisted. Nixon’s story, like many others, has been used to further the narrative of El Paso’s progressive Democrats to bolster the Democrat’s credentials among local voters. On March 5, 2021, the Texas LBJ School at the University of Texas at Austin held a webinar on civil rights on the Texas borderlands. The topic was Lawrence Nixon. [1] It is here that we can observe how a narrative is hijacked for political purposes.

What readers should note about the webinar is how Aaron Escajeda, sets the narrative with his introduction of the topic of the webinar. Escajeda, sets the tone by pointing out his “Mexican American” background in El Paso and how his intern work with Beto O’Rourke encouraged him to pursue public policy. Escajeda, however, knowingly or unknowingly, works towards bolstering O’Rourke’s progressive bona fides for O’Rourke’s political career by interjecting in his introduction; “like many people today arriving at the borderland in search for a better life, Dr. Nixon went to El Paso fleeing persecution.” Escajeda selectively links Nixon’s accomplished activism to El Paso by stating that he is “even prouder to be from El Paso, for I can think of no better city where someone fleeing racial violence can pave the way” for ending all-White primaries. Escajeda goes on to introduce Beto O’Rourke.

The narrative that Escajeda chose to create ignores the historical resistance by El Pasoans in ending the practice of El Paso’s White elite selecting the candidates for the El Paso Democratic primaries. It also creates the illusion that it was El Paso who made it happen, instead of Nixon who had to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to wrestle the power away from the Democrats. Escajeda ties the narrative to Beto O’Rourke to champion political inclusiveness in O’Rourke’s political rhetoric. [2] O’Rourke wasted no time connecting his political ambitions to Nixon’s story.

Beto O’Rourke has been building a progressive label around his political career to create a voter base he leverages each time he runs for office. Nixon’s story is just another story that allows him to bolster his progressive agenda. But it does not belong to him nor to El Paso as readers will note once the Nixon story is understood in full. Nixon has been rightfully noted for forcing the Supreme Court to rule in 1944 that the right to vote could not be denied. As readers will note, Nixon first forced the issue of allowing Black citizens to vote in the Texas Democratic Primaries by trying to vote in the Texas Democratic Primary in 1924. Blacks were prohibited from voting in the Democratic Party Primaries at the time under state law. [3]

What the political rhetoric of Nixon’s battle to allow Blacks to vote in the primaries glosses over is that it was the El Paso Democratic Party that prohibited Nixon from voting for about 20 years, forcing Nixon to take his case to the Supreme Court twice. Even when the court ruled twice in his favor, it took 20 years before he was finally allowed to cast his vote. [4] It wasn’t an El Paso case that ultimately opened the doors to Black voters in the Texas Democratic Party primaries, nonetheless, Nixon deserves the credit for paving the way.

Likely one of the arguments that El Paso’s Democratic Party officials will make is that the prohibition against Blacks voting in the primaries was a state party requirement. Although this is true, the fact is that El Paso party officials did not offer Nixon help during his 20-year battle to cast his vote, and it was a Supreme Court decision, not local party officials, that ultimately allowed Nixon his right to vote. Although Nixon waged his vote battle from El Paso, with the help of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP), to argue that El Paso’s “progressiveness” and the El Paso Democratic Party’s “inclusiveness” led to Nixon’s right to vote is disingenuous.

The local Democratic Party machine was no more helpful in the right to vote than Beto O’Rourke’s use of Nixon’s voting rights fight is for the overall suffrage rights of disenfranchised people today. To understand this, it is important to layout Lawrence Nixon’s fight for voting rights along with what the El Paso’s leadership did to impede that right over 20 years.

Lawrence Nixon Wages Voting Rights Battle Against El Paso Democratic Party

After the Civil War, most Texan Blacks voted Republican. By 1910, El Paso’s Black population was about 3% of El Paso’s residents. Eight years before, El Paso enacted a poll tax. One of the consequences of the poll tax was that minority votes were “controlled by big interests.” At $1.75, the poll tax “was one more deterrent to impoverished” Black voters, “who usually believed” that the money for the tax “could be spent in more useful ways than the doubtful assurance of the right to vote.” [4]

When Nixon arrived in El Paso in 1910, [5] rather than being the tolerant city that revisionist history is trying to create about El Paso and the El Paso Democratic Party, the opposite was true. In addition to the poll tax, there was rampant segregation in the city. Well into the 1960’s “many restaurants and theaters still refused to serve blacks,” Black El Pasoan Algie Felder related to the El Paso Times in 1983. Felder, who says he “quietly observed El Paso’s racial scene” for 22 years, says that when he and his wife were trying to buy a home, “there were areas of town that wouldn’t sell” to Blacks. [6]

Rather than the Black population in El Paso increasing over the years, it has dropped. By 1980, El Paso’s Black population had dropped to 2.7% of the total population. [7]

As Nixon was waging his battle for the right to vote in the Democratic Primaries, the Ku Klux Klan was asserting itself in El Paso. [8] El Paso Politics will explore the rise of the KKK in El Paso in our next article, for now, readers should understand that the KKK had infiltrated the local political scene.

To better understand the El Paso of his time, we need to look at how El Paso treated Lawrence Nixon. It is easy to say that Nixon came to El Paso because El Paso was “considered a haven for African-Americans trying to elude the overt prejudice of the South.” However, although Nixon practiced medicine for 50 years, he was refused membership in the El Paso Medical Society “because of his color.” [9] His son, who lived in Pittsburgh, told the El Paso Times in 1999 that he still “remembers the humiliation that his father often suffered” in El Paso, he added that once an El Paso Policeman “forced both out of reserved seats at a circus because of their color.” [10]

With that background, many in El Paso hijack the rights battle fought by Nixon as if El Paso was instrumental in the fight for Black voting equality. However, the best explanation of El Paso’s part in Nixon’s equality battle is how Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes described it.

In Holmes’ 1927 Supreme Court opinion, he wrote, “Only in a place such as El Paso, an area where negros had a high degree of political consciousness, and yet were not numerous enough to challenge the white power structure, would the NAACP be likely to find a negro who paid his poll tax and had participated enough in party politics that he could be legally described as bona fide member of the Democratic Party.” [11]

As readers can observe by the judge’s opinion, the local political establishment willingly allowed Nixon to pay his tax, get involved in the party’s politics but not cast a vote in the Democratic Party Primary. To better understand this duality, we need to see how Nixon waged his fight for equality and who helped him along the way.

The Activist Doctor’s Fight For Equality

Lawrence Nixon was a Democrat when most Black man in America were Republicans. Unlike most Blacks of his time, Nixon was highly educated, a doctor practicing medicine in El Paso. He lived in a community where the Mexican Americans were the majority but were treated as minorities and Blacks, “were a distinct minority,” behind the Anglos of the city. [12]

The recently constructed narrative of Nixon’s fight for equality in El Paso ignores the fundamental reality that “Nixon lived in a highly segregated, racist, and violent society that deemed him an intellectual and biological inferior.” [13] To suggest that the El Paso community was supportive his 20-year fight for equality ignores this fundamental reality.

Lawrence Nixon arrived in El Paso in January 1910. [14] He was fleeing violence against people of color. Although several contemporary narratives argued that Nixon chose to move his family to El Paso because of the city’s inclusiveness, the reality is that the reason that Nixon whose El Paso “is not altogether clear as to why.” Nixon had previously traveled to El Paso in 1893 to visit his mother’s brother who lived in the city. [15] His decision to move to El Paso could simply have been a place he already knew about.

What is known about El Pasoan’s view on race relations is that “in February 1861, El Pasoans…voted almost unanimously to support secession and formally join the Confederate States of America to maintain and preserve the oppressive institution of slavery.” [16] As readers may have noted in our previous article on slavery in El Paso, although El Paso’s slaver owners were few, the city’s officials were fully supportive of the Confederacy.

Likely the best description of El Paso’s animosity towards Blacks when Nixon arrived is Will Guzmán’s example. Guzmán used the comments made by El Paso Judge Adrian Pool when he sentenced Jasper Smith, an African American.

As per Guzmán, “Gentlemen, I am sorry that the maximum fine in this court is but $100; that, however, is the limit, and the court can go no further.” Pool continues, “Personally, however, I can warn Smith that if he can get out of the country by morning, he had better do it.” Pool concludes, “There are many who would not hesitate to start a little bonfire in which Smith would be the chief actor,” adding, “and I might also add that there are some that would resign office to participate in the affair.” [17] Clearly, El Paso was not as welcoming to Blacks as reimagined narratives tend to portray.

Against this animosity towards the Black population in El Paso, a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was chartered in El Paso on May 1914. The chairman of the Executive Committee was Lawrence A. Nixon. [18] The El Paso Chapter of the NAACP was “one of the first – if not the first” In Texas. [19] At the time, El Paso, like much of the rest of the nation had “separate water fountains, phone boots, and bathrooms, as well as barring Blacks from restaurants, hotels, swimming pools, and other public facilities.” The Plaza Theater, the city’s premier venue, “restricted Black patrons to only enter through side a side entrance that led to a special balcony.” [20]

It is important to note that Nixon first tried to provide his medical services out of downtown El Paso when he first arrived. After first establishing his medical practice across the street from the courthouse, Nixon moved his practice a short time later to the Segundo Barrio. In Segundo Barrio, Nixon became fluent in Spanish. [21] It appears that his patients were predominantly Mexican-Americans, immigrants, Blacks and poorer White individuals who lived in the poorer part of the community. As readers will see, it is this reality that allowed him to challenge Texas’ White-only primaries.

Lawrence Nixon’s first foray into equality politics in El Paso was to head a committee to petition El Paso officials for a Black swimming pool at Washington Park in 1924. When Nixon argued for the swimming pool, Washington Park barred Blacks. As Guzmán writes, Washington Park, “as the premier recreational area in El Paso, having a public pool for the African American community” there “would have confirmed the conventional wisdom that El Paso was more tolerant on race issues than were other Texas locales, but this would not be the case.” [22]

Unable to secure a pool for Blacks at Washington Park, Nixon moved on to what he is best known for – ending the practice oo White-only Democratic Party primaries.

Nixon was a plaintiff in two legal cases that led to the dismantling of all-White primaries in the South in 1944. The first case was the 1927 Nixon v. Herndon (273 U.S. 536) case and the second was the Nixon v. Condon (286 U.S. 73) in 1932. In the Herndon case, Nixon sued the El Paso Election Judges arguing that the 1923 White-only primary law violated his constitutional rights under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. On July 26, 1924, El Paso Democratic Party officials had prohibited Nixon from casting his vote although he was a registered Democrat. The Supreme Court held that Nixon’s rights had been violated by the Texas White-only provision and ordered the law be repealed.

In response to the Herndon case, the Texas legislature replaced the unconstitutional law with a new one that allowed political parties to determine who would be allowed to vote in their primaries. The Texas Democratic Party decreed that only White voters would be allowed to vote in the Texas Democratic Primaries. In 1928, Nixon was again prohibited from casting a vote in the El Paso Democratic Party Primary. The Court again found in favor of Nixon.

It should be noted that then-state senator Richard M. Dudley, from El Paso “prevented” the White-only bill from being voted on during the first regular session of the Texas legislators. It was later adopted when Texas Governor Patt M. Neff “resurrected the bill during the second session of the legislature, asserting, ‘It’s a demand of the Democratic platform’.” Dudley, who later become El Paso’s mayor, was unable to stop the bill a second time. [23]

However, although the Supreme Court twice found that Nixon’s voting rights had been violated, it would be another 20 years before he would be allowed to vote in an El Paso Democratic Party Primary. Readers should also note that “Texas was centrally a one-party state and primaries of the Democratic party determined” who was elected for local and state offices. [24]

In 1923, the NAACP went looking for a Black Democrat to vote in a Texas primary to challenge the White-only law. For the last thirteen years, Nixon had dutifully paid his poll taxes. Nixon had also lived in El Paso for 14 years and was a registered Democrat. He was ideal to challenge the White-only Democratic Party rule. Nixon was one of few Black Americans who were registered Democrats as most were Republican at the time. [25]

However, for context, much like today in El Paso, if one wanted to be politically active, they could only do so as a Democrat as it was the “only effective party.” [26] One of the requirements that the NAACP wanted in the person that was to challenge the law was an individual that derived “personal income independent of the white community.” [27] It is his Segundo Barrio patients that allowed Nixon to wage his legal challenges. This is important to note because those in power tend to use economic terrorism to keep power. Had Nixon depended on income from the Anglo community of the city they could simply withhold Nixon’s income to end the challenge to their authority.

Nixon’s attorney, Frederick C. Knollenberg, who is often characterized as an “Anglo” advised Nixon to “get rid of all your property” to protect himself and his family. Because of his lawsuits, Nixon was socially isolated in El Paso and “some of the people who had been very good friends quit speaking to him,” according to Nixon’s wife. The social isolation included “some African Americans in El Paso who were not pleased with Lawrence Nixon challenging the status quo.” [28]

Contrary to the belief that El Paso’s progressiveness allowed Nixon to challenge the Texas Democrats on primary voting for Black voters, El Paso’s political elites were not supportive. The chairman of the El Paso City Democratic Executive Committee, Robert Cunningham said that El Paso Black voters “will never vote in Texas Democratic Primaries.” Then-County Judge Edward B. McClintock agreed. [29]

Although Nixon won his second court battle before the U.S. Supreme Court, he was still refused the right to vote because the “justices declined to address the question of whether a political party’s exclusion of Blacks would qualify as state action in the absence of a statue specifying which decision-making entity within the party was responsible for determining membership qualifications. [30]

It wasn’t until the 1944 Smith v. Allwright (321 U.S. 649) case that the prohibition against Black citizens voting in the Texas Democratic Party primaries was finally settled. Readers should note that the Smith case was filed in Houston and not in El Paso. Nonetheless, the narrative created by some of El Pasoans argues that El Paso was the key to allowing Black Americans the right to vote in Texas primaries.

Hijacking The Narrative

Nixon courageously fought for the rights of Blacks, and by extension the rights of all citizens to vote. He deserves the credit along with the NAACP and those who supported him through the 20-year battle. But as readers have seen, El Paso’s Democratic Party and leadership stood silently by as Nixon sought for equality. The leadership of El Paso Democratic Party also argued that Blacks did not the right to vote in the primaries. Yet, the political rhetoric highjacks Nixon’s quest for equality for political purposes.

To understand this, look no further than how Leon Metz’ takes Nixon’s battle and turns it into an El Paso “monumental” thing. In 1992, Metz wrote in the El Paso Times that Nixon’s battle for voter rights was “something monumental,” that “we,” as in El Paso, “establish policy that shakes the continent, when we,” again as in El Paso, “overturn an unjust system.” [31]

As readers have observed, Nixon fought his battle through the court system, and instead of El Paso’s political leaders being helpful to his cause, they argued against the fundamental right to vote. At no time, did local officials step forward and say, this is not right, let us force the issue by allowing Nixon the right to vote.

Metz, himself acknowledges this is in his editorial when he adds; “This gentle physician, without the support of the media, or demagogues, or throngs of intimidating supporters, or whites from New England, or large sums of shame money, or religious backing, quietly and with dignity took his case to the United States Supreme Court with an El Paso attorney unlicensed to practice before that tribunal.” [32]

Readers should note two important things about Metz’ use of language in his editorial. The first is that he makes a point to use coded language when he writes, “or throngs of intimidating supporters” and “quietly and with dignity.” Coded language is race-neutral terms that are used to disguise explicit racial animus. To understand the use of the coded language it is important to point out that Nixon was fighting for Black equality as a Black person. The Civil Rights Movement sometimes required boisterous demonstrations to force systematic change. Although marches and demonstrations can turn violent, the non-violent ones remain uncomfortable for many individuals.

Activism via moral suasion can be effective, but nonetheless it can attract violence. Martin Luther King, who is noted for his nonviolent direct action towards social change, nonetheless organized public marches to bring attention to his cause. Metz’ use of “quietly and with dignity” and “throngs of intimidating supports” is language suggesting that Nixon’s demand for social change was acceptable because it was the type of change that happened behind the scenes.

The problem with Metz’ coded language is that it took Nixon 20 years to allow him the right to vote, with El Paso’s White elite, like Leon Metz, actively engaged against allowing Blacks the right to vote. Those were 20 years that Nixon did not have the right that El Pasoan’s like Metz and O’Rourke today champion as an El Paso triumph. It was the NAACP’s and Nixon’s triumph over the lack of El Paso’s progressiveness, not El Paso’s leaders working towards equality. Moreover, the use of the term “tolerance” in El Paso can also be construed as coded language in that El Paso tolerated Nixon and other reformers, without having to provide access to equality. It is often argued that El Paso was not as violent as the rest of Texas when it comes to equal rights, but the fact that equality did not exist only suggests that the political power had enough control to keep anyone from challenging the status quo.

It is true that El Paso was not openly violently racist but that does not negate the reality that El Paso continued to segregate well into the 1960’s. Most poignant is the letter Dora (Marruffo) Frost wrote to the El Paso Times in 2000. Frost wrote that she and her grandmother were patients of Nixon, who “was the dearest man, loved by his patients.” Frost added that after she moved out of the “Hispanic community” at the age of 12, where she and the Nixon family lived, she was “so happy to see” Nixon at a grocery store about eight years later. Frost adds that after she called out to him, “he put out his hand to shake my extended hand, then put it down.” Frost continues that it “dawned” on her “for the first time that we were in a public place, that he was a black man and I was a white woman, and people were staring at us.” Frost continued, “I immediately took his hand and kept shaking it, telling him how happy I was to see him again.” [33] Clearly El Paso was not as open as it is often proclaimed.

More important to note is that El Paso officials did nothing to further the cause of Black suffrage in America. Not only did they socially isolate Nixon but prominent El Paso lawyers Ben R. Howell and Thornton Hardie represented El Paso’s Judges of Election in Nixon’s second case. Howell went on to become Vice-president of the El Paso Natural Gas Company and Hardie was appointed to the Board of Regents of The University of Texas System. [34]

That El Paso was not as open as many suggest is proven again when El Paso’s Black population is factored in. Instead of a rising Black population, especially with the influx of the military, El Paso’s Black population remains at a dismal 4%, according to the 2021 Census.

How is El Paso’s “progressiveness” and racial equality not conducive to growing Black population in the city? Could it be because El Paso’s “tolerance” is not inviting enough? When Nixon arrived in El Paso in 1910, the city’s Black population was 3% of the community. Over 100 years later, the Black population in El Paso has only increased by 1%. According to the 2020 Census, Texas’ Black population increased by about 12% between 2010 and 2020. Yet in El Paso it remains in single digits. Why?

Nixon passed away on March 6, 1966. [35] In 1991, the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD) named its newest elementary school in honor of Lawrence Nixon. The school is in the Northeast. [36]

In our next article, we will explore the Ku Klutz Klan in El Paso.


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Help Us To Bring You News No One Else Reports

We are on a mission to deliver the news and information important to you. Information that no one else is covering. We believe that public policy is grounded on an informed citizenry. We provide information based on analytical analysis that is well-sourced to allow readers to understand the policy decisions that affects their lives. We keep our reporting open to give everyone access to our reports. We are self-funded. This allows us to be independent and we are not influenced by stakeholders on how and what we report.

Help us to keep this resource available to everyone. Your support allows us to fund the site and pay for the research we use to bring important topics to your attention. Support our project by making a small donation today.

Help Us To Bring You News No One Else Reports

We are on a mission to deliver the news and information important to you. Information that no one else is covering. We believe that public policy is grounded on an informed citizenry. We provide information based on analytical analysis that is well-sourced to allow readers to understand the policy decisions that affects their lives. We keep our reporting open to give everyone access to our reports. We are self-funded. This allows us to be independent and we are not influenced by stakeholders on how and what we report.

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  1. Will Guzmán and Beto O’Rourke, “Beto O’Rourke and Will Guzman: Civil Rights in the Texas Borderlands” (webinar, The University of Texas at Austin, Texas LBJ School, March 5, 2021)
  2. Will Guzmán, “Beto O’Rourke and Will Guzman”.
  3. Jeannie Kever, “El Paso doctor sued to change laws that took vote from blacks,” El Paso Times, January 30, 1983, 1-E.
  4. Jeannie Kever, “El Paso doctor sued to change laws,” 1-E.
  5. Jeannie Kever, “El Paso doctor sued to change laws,” 1-E.
  6. Jeannie Kever, “Homes: ‘Areas of town wouldn’t sell to you’,” El Paso Times, January 30, 1983, 1-E.
  7. Jeannie Kever, “Tolerance, racism,” El Paso Times, January 30, 1983, 1-E.
  8. Jeannie Kever, “El Paso doctor sued to change laws,” 1-E.
  9. Ramon Renteria, “Nixon, Civil rights pioneer left legacy of love, learning and understanding,” El Paso Times, October 24, 1999, 8.
  10. Ramon Renteria, “Nixon, Civil rights pioneer left legacy of love,” 8.
  11. Ramon Renteria, “Nixon, Civil rights pioneer left legacy of love,” 8.
  12. Will Guzmán, “Border Physician: The Life of Lawrence A. Nixon, 1883-1966” (PhD diss, The University of Texas at El Paso, 2010), 4-5.
  13. Guzmán, “Border Physician,” 5.
  14. Guzmán, “Border Physician,” 53.
  15. Guzmán, “Border Physician,” 53-54.
  16. Guzmán, “Border Physician,” 56.
  17. Guzmán, “Border Physician,” 69.
  18. Guzmán, “Border Physician,” 76.
  19. Guzmán, “Border Physician,” 84.
  20. Guzmán, “Border Physician,” 86-86.
  21. Guzmán, “Border Physician,” 60.
  22. Guzmán, “Border Physician,” 112-113
  23. Guzmán, “Border Physician,” 135.
  24. Guzmán, “Border Physician,” 138.
  25. Guzmán, “Border Physician,” 140-141.
  26. Guzmán, “Border Physician,” 142.
  27. Guzmán, “Border Physician,” 143.
  28. Guzmán, “Border Physician,” 144.
  29. Guzmán, “Border Physician,” 146.
  30. Guzmán, “Border Physician,” 149-150.
  31. Leon Metz, “Book shows gentle physician’s fight for equality,” El Paso Herald Post, September 25, 1992, D-3.
  32. Leon Metz, “Book shows gentle physician’s fight for equality,” D-3.
  33. Dora (Marruffo) White, letter to the editor, “Dr. Nixon lauded,” El Paso Times, July 14, 2000, A10.
  34. Michelle D. Esparza, “The Story of Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon, A black doctor in El Paso, who successfully challenged two discriminatory Texas statues in the U.S. Supreme Court,” El Paso Bar Journal, El Paso Bar Association, Fall 2020, 6.
  35. “Services Set Wednesday For Dr. Nixon,” El Paso Herald Post, March 7, 1966, Section A., Page 2.
  36. Ramon Renteria, “Summer wanes, tardy bells ring – school’s back,” El Paso Times, August 20, 1991, 2A.

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...