Documenting Texas' Forgotten Radical History

The staff of Austin underground left newspaper The Rag in the early 1970s. (Alan Pogue)

By Richard Croxdale and Glenn Scott

Texas may seem like a very red state at the moment, but it has a radical history. Teaching that history is why we started People’s History in Texas in 1976, beginning a journey that would lead us to produce 20 educational videos about the often-forgotten struggles for social justice that have played a crucial part in our state’s past.

Returning to Austin (even now, Texas is not all red) in 1974 from teaching Chicano middle-school students, Glenn (one of the authors of this piece) was inspired to create educational materials for young women who faced a dearth of books, articles, stories and movies about women’s history that depict women as active participants in society. To deliver on her vision, she gathered a group of young radicals and feminists to found a non-profit whose aim was (and still is) discovering the history of Texans who have been neglected or underserved by the educational process.

PHIT’s first documentary, released in 1979,  was an oral history of women in the Texas labor movement. Texans’ rich labor history — including the activism of women and especially women of color — had been ignored by both the educational establishment and the Left itself. Telling that story, we hoped to fill that gap in historical memory and empower Texans in their contemporary fights for social justice.

We chose oral history to allow the participants to tell the story themselves, minimizing intervention through the use of narration. We’ve continued to use this method of presentation, which allows history to be told in the voices of those who made it.

Our most recent project (the one featured in DSA’s upcoming film discussion Sunday, April 2) is a three-part documentary on The Rag, an Austin-based underground newspaper that was published weekly from 1966-77. Produced with volunteer labor, The Rag served as the voice of the left movement in Austin during those years. Part I of the series discusses the anti-war movement and the battles with the University of Texas around free speech and minority rights. Part II focuses of the impact of the women’s liberation movement. Part III details the shift to building community, such as co-ops, feminist institutions, local politics and labor struggles, as well as the role of cartoon art and music in the Austin Left. The trilogy is designed for classroom and community educational purposes and can be viewed separately or in sequence.

PHIT is currently raising funds to add graphics, narration, archival footage and music of the period. Our goal is to raise $10,000 by May 1, 2017, to produce a one-hour broadcast quality documentary (combining short pieces into a  full length film) to submit to documentary festivals. You can contribute here.

This film is but the latest of a long list of films we’ve used to bring Texas’ radical history to life. For instance, in the 1980s, we used the format of public access TV to distribute our work. PHIT produced a program that highlighted Isamu Taniguchi, a survivor of U.S. internment who created a local Japanese garden called “Peace in the Garden.”

“Hot Oil War of Texas” dealt with the regulation of the oil industry in the 1930s. The film was produced during the period of excessive deregulation under the Reagan administration and illustrated how an earlier explosion of uncontrolled capitalism ran roughshod over the conservationist goals of government regulation.

In “John Henry Faulk Runs for Congress,” PHIT followed renowned humorist John Henry Faulk around East Texas as he ran for U.S. Senate in 1983 against Phil Gramm, who had changed parties and was running as a Republican. The Democratic Party wanted as many candidates as they could get into the open election in order to throw it into a runoff and give their leading candidate a chance to gain ground. Gramm won, but the process of covering Faulk’s run led us to discover a vital oppositional movement in East Texas that ran back to the Populists and the Socialist Party.

After a decade-long hiatus, the PHIT crew re-activated in the early twenty first century just in time for the magic of the World Wide Web, which gives thousands of viewers easy access to our films.

One of our recent documentaries is “The Stand-Ins,” the story of a group of students who organized a civil rights protest of movie theater segregation in Austin in 1960. Inspired to act by the Greensboro, NC, sit-in of the same year, students attending the University of Texas at Austin, assisted by other local college and high school students, conducted a direct action against the segregation policies of two theaters located across the street from the UT campus. Standing politely in line for tickets, the students waited to ask if the theater sold tickets to all Americans — and specifically asked whether they could purchase tickets for their African American friends. When told that their friends weren’t allowed, they went to the end of the line and waited patiently to ask the question again.

After ten months of pressure, the CEO of Paramount in New York City agreed to desegregate over 100 theaters across the South. This victory came three years before passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

For the documentary, we conducted full interviews with most of the living participants at their 50-year reunion, the result of which is a 20-minute film intended for classroom use. In nearly all our screenings around the state, individuals stand up and tell the audience what they did to bring change to Texas. 

The video seems to evoke a realization that what those students did for social change — brave but seemingly small actions, taken in a city that might seem of just minor importance — was part of a national movement. Now that they can view their actions in context, participants can be proud of their contributions to a wave of change that touched the lives of millions.

You might call it participatory democracy as a narrative method, or you might call it old-fashioned storytelling. Either way, this embodies PHIT’s goal: to allow ordinary people who acted in extraordinary situations to tell their story.

Richard Croxdale and Glenn Scott are members of Austin DSA and People’s History in Texas. They are also married and have a daughter and son-in-law who all live in Austin.

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