On the first floor of the McLennan County Courthouse in Waco, a series of murals painted 30 years ago depicts scenes from the area’s past. One painting in particular has divided the community. It shows a noose hanging from a tree.
Given the long and gruesome history of lynching in the Waco area, not everyone is so enamored with celebrating the image. In the first half of the last century, Central Texas often experienced spasms of racial violence. No incident is more famous than the 1916 lynching of a 17-year-old black farmhand named Jesse Washington. He had been found guilty of murdering a white woman and, minutes after the verdict, was dragged from the courthouse by a white mob. They beat him, castrated him, and, before a crowd of some 15,000 that included the sheriff and mayor in the town square, hung him. The murder has become known as the “Waco Horror” and has received renewed attention of late. It was the subject of the recently published The First Waco Horror by historian Patricia Bernstein (see “My Ancestor’s Violence,” January 13, 2006).
Recently the community has been debating how to atone for its history of racial violence. During the past few months, Waco and McLennan County leaders have haggled about what, if any, official action to take. After much negotiation, the five-member county commission approved a resolution in late May that “condemns”—though doesn’t apologize for—the lynchings and “despicable acts of violence.” Many leaders in Waco had opposed an apology, arguing that they didn’t want to apologize for acts they didn’t take part in.
One of the forces behind the resolution’s passage was Lester Gibson, the county commission’s lone African American. After the resolution passed, Gibson set his sights on removing the hanging tree mural from the courthouse. His fellow commissioners refused. Gibson backed off a bit and offered a motion to display the anti-lynching resolution next to the mural. His four white colleagues outvoted him again. Gibson won’t let the matter drop. He’s raised the issue at every commission meeting since May. At the hearing on June 13, according to the Waco Herald-Tribune, Gibson treated his colleagues to a 45-minute presentation on the history of lynching, including the origin of the term (it apparently started with one Charles Lynch, known for his brutality toward American turncoats during the Revolutionary War). Other commissioners are growing weary. “It’s time to move on,” Commissioner Joe Mashek told the Herald-Tribune after the meeting. “Commissioner Gibson needs to realize that I’m tired of hearing about the noose… We spent a lot of time working on that resolution and trying to heal the wounds and trying to unite us, and all he has done since then is try to divide us. I don’t understand it.”
Gibson, meanwhile, told the newspaper that he’s considering a class-action lawsuit to force the county to post the resolution beside the noose painting. “That might be where we go with it,” he said. “This is a serious matter to me and other folks in regard to that symbol.”
Nice Guy Finishes
First He didn’t appreciate being called an underdog, but that was really the best way to describe Webb County’s amicable Justice of the Peace Danny Valdez, who recently won a runoff election to become the next county judge in Webb County. (See “The Fall of King Louie,” March 24, 2006.) He lacked the money, the charisma, and the power of his three sometimes-flashy opponents, but Valdez’s daily block-walking and glad-handing paid off. He crushed his opponents in the primary and runoff elections.
Valdez rarely was mentioned around Laredo as the front-runner. But in the Democratic primary, Valdez out-campaigned the wealthy incumbent county judge, a popular county commissioner, and a rich rancher-oilman. Valdez’s awe-shucks demeanor took a lot of people in Webb County by surprise, especially the candidates who finished behind him. Ultimately, it was Valdez’s nice-guy image that helped him to beat the reigning County Judge “King Louie”, whose family name is printed on schools and streets in Laredo. Valdez’s demure style also contributed to his besting of the other challengers, namely Carlos “C.Y.” Benavides III, who oversees family oil and ranching interests, and County Commissioner Judy Gutierrez, a harsh Bruni critic.
In the May 23 runoff, Valdez again surprised a lot of people in Webb County when he took a landslide 62 percent of the vote, crushing Benavides, who had papered Laredo with his image. With no Republican opposition, Valdez has secured the county’s top job and will take office in January.
The runoff against Benavides was delayed from April until May because of a lawsuit by Bruni, who alleged campaign fraud. Though the suit was eventually dropped, Valdez says it served to re-energize his campaign workers. He adds that his army of volunteers proved to be more dedicated than his opponents’ paid staff. “It makes a difference when they are helping you because the want to, instead of being paid,” Valdez says. “We didn’t sit back at all. We worked double-hard.”
Valdez says when he takes office in January, he’ll work to rebuild some things in a community that’s endured a rocky campaign season—not the least of which will be a sense of stability.
SERGEANT, GET A HALL PERMIT
When Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, it added a particularly onerous, little-known provision that requires high schools to release student names to the military. The Pentagon has used such sensitive information as grades, ethnicity, Social Security numbers, cell phone numbers, and e-mail addresses to create a database of 30 million young people. Although they can’t change federal law, a group of activist students has managed to convince the Austin Independent School District to place limits on military recruiting at AISD campuses. The new guidelines, which take effect in the fall, will establish uniform (so to speak) rules for on-campus recruiting. From now on, recruiters will have to check in at the principal’s office, pick up a visitor’s badge, and limit their recruiting to designated areas. Overzealous military recruiters (and the principals who have been happy to accommodate them) are not to contact students who have made it clear that they don’t want to be contacted. Parents will be notified of their right to ask the school not to release their children’s names. School district trustees have also called for information about alternatives to the military to be readily available to students.
One student who worked on the campaign to turn around school district policy was Kate Kelly, an entering sophomore at Austin’s LBJ High School. Kelly and other members of Youth Activists of Austin helped organize teach-ins, benefit concerts, and vigils outside AISD headquarters that generated media coverage. They also met with school board trustees. “There were some points we wish we had gotten, like the hardware on campus,” Kelly told the Observer. (The students had sought to ban military hardware, military vehicles, and military recreational equipment, i.e., Army Cinema vans, Humvees, helicopters, video game systems and rock-climbing equipment.) Nevertheless, she said, “It’s a good policy for this state. Something like this has never been implemented in any high school in Texas-—much less a district.” As to the ban on military hardware, “They took that one out” of the proposed guidelines “because one of the principals thought it was educational.”
Can we Have a Receipt?
When you go to the bank, you get a receipt after every transaction. So why don’t you get a receipt after you vote? That’s the argument behind a lawsuit recently filed in Travis County by the Texas Civil Rights Project on behalf of David Van Os, the Democratic candidate for Texas attorney general; the NAACP of Austin and its president, Nelson Linder; and local voter Sonia Santana. Van Os and fellow plaintiffs are demanding that Secretary of State Roger Williams and Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir remove any machine that doesn’t create a paper ballot to back up the electronic record. That would bring Texas into line with 26 other states that already require a printed voting record.
The suit alleges three violations of the Texas Constitution and the Texas Election Code: Reported problems with electronic-only machines damage the right to a secure election; no paper trail means unreliable recounts; and since there are more secure and verifiable systems out there, failure to implement them creates an equal-protection violation. “We’re not advocating going off electronic, but we do want verification,” said TCRP Director Jim Harrington. The TCRP has singled out the eSlate electronic voting system, used in Travis County, as a major problem. Produced by Austin-based Hart InterCivic Inc., the machine has been the subject of multiple complaints throughout the state. Alleged problems include unrecorded votes, incomplete ballots, and phantom counts, such as the 100,000 extra votes that appeared out of nowhere in Tarrant County’s March primaries.
Hart InterCivic says its machines already produce an accurate tally, but the company has developed a new eSlate model that creates a receipt. Six counties in California used the new machines in their June 6 primaries. (The new model allows voters to request a printout after submitting the ballot. The paper trail is not automatic.)
The good news for electoral reformers seeking a paper trail is that older eSlates, like those used in Travis County, can be retrofitted. The bad news is that there’s no indication the fix will be applied before November.