Making desegregation stick in Texas

September 30, 1993

When the last black residents of the East Texas town of Vidor fled their homes earlier this month citing racist taunts and threats of violence, the die was cast for federal intervention. Last year a federal district judge ordered the desegregation of public housing projects in 36 East Texas counties, including one in Vidor, a town of 11,000 residents 85 miles east of Houston.

Local Ku Klux Klan leaders vowed to drive out four black tenants who moved into the town's public housing complex this year. After a few months of unremitting Klan-orchestrated hostility, the two women and their children moved out, fearing for their safety. The remaining two black tenants left Sept. 1. The next day, one of them was shot dead in nearby Beaumont, apparently a victim of random violence.

Vidor's failure to desegregate prompted Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros to seize control of the town's all-white public housing complex Sept. 14 and declare the Orange County Housing Authority "in breach and in default" of its contract to offer fair and equal housing to blacks in compliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Mr. Cisneros said HUD will oversee the complex and recruit at least 10 black families to move in.

Residents of Vidor say they have been unfairly characterized as bigots and that the problem is the result of a small minority of residents. Vidor's mayor ran for election earlier this year on a platform calling for compliance with the desegregation order and won handily. Yet when a National Public Radio reporter interviewed residents of the town last week, she found that while some younger people opposed the Klan's tactics, many older whites tacitly supported the goal of keeping blacks out.

One man interviewed offered a revealing insight into the fears of Vidor's white citizens when he complained that integration would upset things since "it's as easy to love a black person as a white person, especially if you're young." The comment sounded like a perverse reformulation of the truth contained in the Rodgers and Hammerstein line, "You've got to be taught to hate." Mr. Cisneros said the federal government will ensure the safety of black residents who move into Vidor's public housing. That should send a signal to hate groups that they cannot flout the law with impunity. Yet it also raises a question: If the government is willing to protect black tenants from random violence and lawlessness in Vidor, why can't it do the same for public housing residents everywhere?

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