Republican supporters of Senate Bill 7 say it would not roll back voting rights for anyone. But Black lawmakers fear that their access to the ballot box would be put in jeopardy.
AUSTIN — Senfronia Thompson was in her 20s and living in Houston when grainy black-and-white news footage flickered on televisions showing Blacks in the South seeking the right to vote being bowled over by firehoses and menaced by dogs straining at leashes held by uniformed police police officers.
Those images first flashed nearly 60 years ago, but they remain seared in her memory.
“Persons were killed, dogs unleashed on them, firehoses unleashed on them for the rights that we all share in this room,” said Thompson, now 82 and the longest-serving Black member of the Legislature in Texas history. “I can tell you, from growing up in Texas, I can recall when my grandparents could not vote.”
She shared those memories this past Monday with about a dozen of her fellow lawmakers of color, all of them decades younger, one day after most of the Democrats in the Texas House discreetly left the chamber on the final day to pass bills during the 2021 legislative session. The walkout denied the House a quorum and derailed a bill Democrats feared wound strip away some of the voting rights won during the turbulent 1960s.
The walkout made national headlines and was trumpeted by Democrats in Texas and around the country as a heroic stand against voter suppression. Several of the House members appeared on national cable TV talk shows and Democratic campaign operatives peppered supporters’ email inboxes with pleas for cash so that such efforts could continue and perhaps be replicated in other states pushing similar measures.
But Thompson and other Black and Hispanic lawmakers said they don’t need brief moments of celebrity and a higher stack of talking-point papers. They need White Americans, particularly White Republicans, to understand that they view any effort to limit access to the voting booth as part of an ongoing campaign to make casting a ballot as difficult for them and their children as it was for the parents and grandparents.
“I was around during the era of Barbara Jordan. My mother continues to tell me the stories of Martin (Luther King Jr.) and Malcom (X),” said state Rep. Jarvis Thompson, a 49-year-old Houston Democrat whose mother was an aide to the late Congressman Mickey Leland.
“Nobody is going to cede power until they realize there is opposition and a struggle,” he added. “And we’re willing to go all the way for it.”
Texas Senate Bill 7 and what it means for voting
The backers of the legislation that sparked the walkout — and will likely spark a special session this summer to get it passed — reject outright any suggestion that it has racial overtones. Senate Bill 7, as it was known during the regular session, would have limited the hours of early voting, particularly on Sundays when many Blacks leave church services and head to the polls. It would also end drive-through voting and limited voting by mail.
“The provisions apply equally across the state,” said state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, the bill’s author on the night the final version was debated in the Senate. “They are not limited to a particular group or particular area.”
The House sponsor, Deer Park Republican Briscoe Cain, went one better.
“This bill protects every single Texas voter,” he said.
Gov. Greg Abbott, a second-term Republican who made passing the voting bill one of his top legislative priorities this year, forcefully pushed back against assertions he and the other bill supports were stripping voting rights away from minorities, who make up the heart of the Democratic base.
“It is a complete distortion to relate this to any of the (Jim Crow-era) Democrat-imposed voting restrictions that occurred in the state of Texas back maybe in Senfronia Thompson’s early days, or her parents early days,” Abbott said in an interview. “Those restrictions that were imposed by Democrats, they have long been eliminated.”
Abbott said that even if Senate Bill had passed during the regular session, or is passed in the special session expected this summer, Texas would still have better access to the ballot box than reliably Democratic states such as Delaware and New York. None of the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson of Texas, would be rolled back under Senate Bill 7, Abbott said.
Generational — and racial — differences at the ballot box
That misses the point, said Jermi Suri, a presidential historian at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. In the decades since the act was signed, several measures followed that made voting easier came into being. Many states, including Texas, now have no-excuse early voting. Others have laws allowing people to register to vote on election day.
In addition, because White Americans have little or no history in having to overcome barriers to the ballot box, family stories of humiliation and intimidation for even daring to think they might be entitled to vote are simply not part of White culture, Suri said. But it is for many Black and Brown Americans, he said.
“It’s part of their personal memory,” Suri said. “I mean these are their parents, grandparents, who experienced the poll taxes, violence when they try to vote. Threats to them. So this is an emotional issue. They feel, and they are correct, that they were denied access to our democracy.”
Gary Bledsoe, an Austin resident who is the acting dean of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law and the Texas president of the NAACP, said his life has straddled the divide between the the Texas of Jim Crow and the Texas of today. He was born in 1952 and the high school he attended was integrated the first year he enrolled.
Finally being guaranteed the right to vote, was a milestone his family will never forget, Bledsoe said.
“For people like me who who, lived through Jim Crow and through the segregated South, not being able to stop at a restaurant and not being able to use restrooms, being able to vote in my family became a huge deal,” he said. “My dad only had a seventh-grade education. But both of my parents, even in the early ’60s, were emphatic about voting. It was a central part of their being.”
Thompson, who was first elected to the Texas House in 1972 and re-elected 24 times since, said the battle for voting rights was not just fought by Black American, or just for Black Americans.
“There were Hispanic Americans, Jewish Americans, white Americans – all of those fought to give us those rights,” she said. “And those rights live. We have a responsibility to pass on something. That’s why we are here. To protect and preserve those rights and pass on something for generations to come.”
Johnson, a former Houston city council member who is in his third term in the House, said the night of the walkout that in the end, the derailing of the voting bill will likely prove to be a short-lived victory. But, he added, it must not be a short-term effort.
“Did Rosa Parks know she was going to stop the desegregation of buses when she sat down at the front? Nope,” he said. “Did Martin think that after one speech he was going to change the whole civil rights movement? No. This is a movement. It’s going to take us to do this over again until they realize we are not going to stop.”
When Thompson’s fellow Democrats ruled the House early in her career, the White conservative wing ran the show. So with the Republicans in charge for the past 18 years, she’s grown accustomed to being outgunned on progressive issues. That does not mean she will walk away quietly when lawmakers are called back to debate the voting bill, she said.
“They have the numbers,” Thompson said of the GOP majority. “But that does not mean that anytime that you’re on the battlefield, because the other side is greater and more powerful, that you lay your weapons down and say ‘I can’t fight.’ I’d rather die fighting on my feet any day than die fighting on my knees.”
John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.