By Vinicio Sinta
For George Joseph Korbel, going back to Pearsall, Texas, a city about 55 miles southwest of San Antonio, unearthed memories of a time when Mexican American and black Texans were almost completely excluded from the political process.
"When I drove into town, I just felt cold. This was such an awful place, just an awful place," said the veteran civil rights attorney, who has fought for minority voting rights in Texas for more than four decades.
When Korbel moved to Texas in 1971 as a volunteer attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, minorities were almost completely absent from elected public service, with the exception of a few counties in South Texas. While most blatant forms of voter suppression, like poll taxes and literacy tests, had been outlawed in southern states covered by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, in Texas the mostly Anglo political establishment continued to hold complete control of the mechanisms for the election of officials in all levels of government. Members from minority groups who tried to participate often faced intimidation, confusing rules, and in the case of Mexican Americans, a lack of campaign and voting documents in Spanish. Additionally, until 1971 voters were not allowed to use an interpreter unless they were visually impaired.
The systematic exclusion of minorities posed insurmountable hurdles to African- American and Mexican-American candidates. In the latter case, a tally of Spanish-surnamed officials compiled by political science scholar John Garcia showed that in 1973 there were only an estimated 142 county-level and 424 city-level Latino elected officials in Texas. In a state with 254 counties and more than a thousand incorporated cities, these numbers amount to a very small proportion of all government positions. Any success, such as the 1969 takeover of Crystal City by the Raza Unida Party, made national news.
Come 2015, challenges for effective representation of Mexican Americans continue. But the state of civil rights has improved considerably since 1975, when the Voting Rights Act was extended and expanded to Texas and other jurisdictions. In this era of change, George Korbel and a coalition of civil rights attorneys, activists and allies worked together to bring down long-lasting barriers for the political representation of minorities.
George Korbel was born July 9, 1943, in Breckenridge, Minnesota, 200 miles northwest of Minneapolis. His father, George, who worked as an attorney, and his mother, Winnifred Agnew, a homemaker, had three children - all sons.
During the postwar years, Korbel was largely insulated from witnessing firsthand the racial discrimination and turmoil that enveloped most of the rest of the United States. Korbel recalled cordial relationships between locals and Mexican American seasonal workers who worked in the fields. Many of the local women had their ears pierced by the women migrant workers, who also brought with them produce that was difficult to get in western Minnesota, like onions and watermelons.
After coming of age, Korbel earned a degree in political science at St. John's, a Catholic college in Collegeville, Minnesota, "in the middle of nowhere," 130 miles southeast of his hometown. He then graduated in 1968 from the University of Minnesota School of Law, his father's alma mater. Even though his law school years were in the middle of the most heated of the civil rights movement, Korbel said he was fairly unaware of it, as most of the liberal activism in Minnesota was oriented toward labor issues.
Korbel's involvement in civil rights litigation happened almost by serendipity.
After three years working in his father's private law practice, his life had hit a snag. There had been three deaths in his family, and his marriage, to Jean Hafner, was deteriorating.
Eager to get away from these difficult situations and to "do his part" - he had been drafted and then rejected by the Army due to a shoulder injury - Korbel signed up to become a VISTA attorney in 1971. He was assigned to San Antonio to work with MALDEF.
The first case he handled upon getting to Texas put him on a course to handle voting rights issues, which would become his life's work and led to him to become an authority on redistricting in Texas.
In this landmark case, eventually known as White v. Regester, plaintiffs from urban Texas counties, represented by David Richards, Ed Idar and an extensive team of litigators, challenged the apportionment of districts for the Texas State Legislature. While rural parts of the state had single-member state representative districts, the biggest urban areas - among them Dallas, Bexar and Tarrant counties - elected their delegations to the Texas Legislature as a single at-large district.
At the time, African Americans and Mexican Americans were minorities in most urban areas in the state. Since Anglo voters rarely supported non-white candidates, votes were highly polarized by race, which blocked most black and Latino candidates from being elected. As a result, wide swaths of minority neighborhoods in cities like San Antonio and Dallas were virtually unrepresented on city councils, school boards and the state Legislature. Korbel joked that before White v. Regester, African American legislators "could caucus in a phone booth and Hispanics could ride together in a station wagon."
As the lawsuit evolved from its original claims, White v. Regester expanded from dealing with the election of state representatives in Bexar and Dallas counties to covering a wider number of local and state-level positions in urban areas of the state, including Tarrant, Nueces, McLennan, Travis, Galveston, Jefferson, Lubbock and El Paso counties.
Looking back on the process for White v. Regester, Korbel recalled the intricacies of fighting at-large elections in a state as large and diverse as Texas, where each city's polity had its own pecularities. In Dallas County, for example, a group called the Dallas Committee for Responsible Government nominated a slate of candidates, who were all but assured to win in the primary and general elections. But it was not always as clear-cut. The DCRG sometimes included an African-American candidate in its slate, making it difficult to argue that minority aspirants did not receive Anglo support.
The situation in San Antonio was markedly different; there was no slating group for the Texas Legislature in Bexar County. So, rather than focusing on the selection of candidates, the team combined evidence of racially polarized voting with statistics about the pronounced disparities in education and income between racial groups.
The evidence gathered in preparing for the White v. Regester trial pointed to inequities faced by Mexican American and black Texans, and a lack of support for minority candidates by the Anglo majority. The patterns of racially polarized voting identified through this research served as a foundation for future redistricting cases.
White v. Regester reached the Supreme Court in 1973. The court ruled that the district reapportionment in Texas was unconstitutional, as at-large elections discriminated against African Americans and Mexican Americans.
"It set down the proof pattern for litigation in almost literally all redistricting that dealt with at-large elections," said Korbel.
Bringing down at-large elections in Texas was a milestone for voting rights in the state, but the push to bring election equity to the state did not end there.
A few years later, the evidence gathered for and through the White v. Regester case went on to become a roadmap for the expansion of Voting Rights Act coverage to the state.
When Congress prepared to debate the extension of the Act, which was set to expire in 1975, Korbel had moved to Chicago to work as an attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
One day, he was contacted by Patricia Villarreal, a staffer with the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Villarreal asked Korbel to testify in the upcoming hearings for the extension (and eventually, expansion) of the Voting Rights Act .
By this point, two proposals for the extension of the bill - one of them by Rep. Barbara Jordan - applied the Section 5 protections of the original Voting Rights Act to Texas. Section 5 is the preclearance requirement, forcing affected jurisdictions to secure Department of Justice approval to make any changes to voting procedures, including redistricting. As talk of a possible expansion of the Voting Rights Act gained traction, the Judiciary Committee sought evidence from Texas.
Coincidentally, Korbel had been freed from any EEOC litigation work,because of an internal dispute between commissioners. Korbel was eager to work on voting rights again.
"The person I was working for [at the EEOC] had formerly worked for the Civil Rights Commission, and he said, 'You know, do whatever you want to do until we can get this straightened out.' So I did."
Korbel set out to craft a statement that he later presented before the U.S. House and the Senate.
His testimony went into depth not only about the existing patterns of discrimination against African Americans and Mexican Americans in Texas but also described all the problems lawyers had faced while litigating White v. Regester.
Korbel argued that the expanding Voting Rights Act coverage to Texas would accelerate the provision of voting rights to racial minorities by avoiding protracted and difficult litigation.
"If you look at the cases that they were citing as the necessity for passing Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, most of those cases are Texas cases," he said.
Preparing for the hearings in Washington, D.C., was a reunion of sorts for some of the men and women who worked on White v. Regester.
A notable example was Charles Cotrell, a political science professor at St. Mary's University who again provided expert testimony. Cotrell had statistics on polarized voting and the economic and education inequities among blacks and Mexican Americans in Texas.
Still, the lawyers knew, something was missing. In addition to the expertise of lawyers and academics, the group needed testimony from the people affected by voting discrimination.
Korbel, who was familiar with the situation in Pearsall through his work with MALDEF, invited Modesto Rodriguez, a local activist with the Raza Unida Party, to testify before the House. Rodriguez talked about the hurdles for political participation in his town.
Taking part in a forum of that magnitude was completely new to Rodriguez; he had never been to the nation's capital. In anticipation of the event, his sister Modesta bought him a new sports jacket.
According to Korbel, while the lawyers' and academics' statements and evidence gained support for the extension of the VRA to Texas, it was Rodriguez who "nailed it" in his testimony.
"He was a very wise man. Not learned at all, but very wise and so sincere," Korbel said. "Just marvelous."
In spite of Korbel's initial pessimism, the hearings in the House were largely successful. The idea that Texas could be brought under Voting Rights Act protections gained traction.
One key issue that came up during the committee hearings and the ensuing legislative debate was the role of language for political participation. The two expansion proposals under consideration - one drafted by Rep. Barbara Jordan, D-Houston, and the other by Reps. Herman Badillo, D-New York, and Edward R. Roybal, D-Los Angeles - contemplated language as a trigger for the application of special provisions, such as Section 5 preclearance.
Texas, historically the state with the second largest number of Spanish-speakers in the union, was an obvious target for the protection of the suffrage of language minorities. During the hearings, Korbel highlighted the irony of having to fight for the implementation of bilingual ballots in elections while private businesses such as the Ringling Brothers circus had already developed sophisticated Spanish-language marketing.
"They are the best merchandisers in the world. And they do it in Spanish," Korbel recalled telling lawmakers. "So that tells you Spanish is a necessary tool in South Texas."
When the inclusion of languages other than English in voting materials became contentious, Korbel recalled the intervention of an unlikely ally. Democratic Rep. Bob Krueger, from New Braunfels, Texas, shared his own experience as a member of a language minority group.
Korbel remembers that during a particularly acrimonious debate with Rep. Gonzalez, Krueger stood up and said: "I understand the problems that the Hispanics have with the language and with the issues with voting because when I grew up, I spoke only German."
Korbel said Krueger's personal story "brought Congress back to sanity."
After several months of intense debate, Congress expanded the Voting Rights Act to include Texas and a number of other jurisdictions with large Spanish-speaking populations. The coverage would stay in place for decades, changing the face of Texas and national politics.
"It went very quickly. You anticipate that things are going to go badly and all of a sudden they go really well," Korbel said.
After President Gerald Ford signed the new Voting Rights Act in August 1975, change in Texas was swift and sweeping. By the following extension of the act in 1981, Texas had become the jurisdiction with the most activity with regard to voting rights protections. In those six years, according to Cotrell's 1981 testimony before the U.S. House, a total of 130 proposed alterations to voting procedures were stopped by the Department of Justice.
Unfortunately, this shakeup of the establishment was not without its detractors, and the fact that the political process in Texas would be under federal oversight faced some backlash.
The state had been largely untouched by the sweeping civil rights legislation from the 1960s.
"Texas had money and political power: [they had] Speakers of the House, the Presidency," Korbel said. "It was hard to go after Texas."
The reaction to the change took a tragic turn a few months later. After meeting with lawyers from the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice who were investigating electoral problems, Modesto Rodriguez was beaten up outside a Pearsall bar by local and state law enforcement officers. He was badly injured.
When the attack happened, Korbel was back in Chicago with the EEOC. Rodriguez's sister Modesta called and told Korbel that her brother was in the emergency room.
Race tensions were so strong in Pearsall that Rodriguez's family did not want him to be treated in the local hospital.
"The primary doctor in Pearsall was a total jerk and a racist, and she [Modesta] was afraid that they were going to kill him," said Korbel, who had Rodriguez transferred to a hospital near San Antonio.
Rodriguez eventually recovered from the injuries, but he was left with permanent damage.
"He [Rodriguez] never was the same after that," Korbel said. "He always had this ringing in his ear. It was really too bad."
According to Korbel, the attack was not investigated in any depth by the authorities.
After moving back to San Antonio in August 1975 to head MALDEF in the state, Korbel kept in touch with Modesto Rodriguez. What was originally a working relationship became a lasting friendship.
One day, while at a hearing in Austin, a court staffer told Korbel that his office had called and wanted him "to get back" to San Antonio right away. The staffer was concerned more violence had occurred in Pearsall.
Korbel's first thought was that Rodriguez had been attacked again.
"We didn't have cell phones in those days, so I got into the chambers of the court and called the MALDEF office," he recalled.
It turned out that the call was indeed about Modesto Rodriguez, but for a very different reason.
"Modesto had killed two deer for me." he recalled.
Rodriguez wanted Korbel to get back to San Antonio to collect the deer because he did not want to pay to store them in a locker plant.
Modesto Rodriguez passed away in Pearsall on March 24, 2015, less than a week before the interview was conducted.
Once he put down roots in San Antonio, Korbel married again, to Anita Andersen, but the couple broke apart in 1979. In 1982, he married Susan Smith, his current spouse. He has three children: Chris, Joseph and Polly.
In addition to his work as a staff attorney in MALDEF and the EEOC during the 1970s, Korbel has also worked with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Texas Rural Legal Aid Fund (now Texas RioGrande Legal Aid), and continues to run his private practice from San Antonio. In the last three decades, he has become a constant presence in voting rights litigation in Texas.
In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court released its verdict on Shelby County v. Holder, a case that put into question the constitutionality of Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
The decision sent shockwaves through the country; it struck down section 4(b), which dealt with the formulas that determined which jurisdictions qualified for preclearance of any voting changes. For practical purposes, this makes Section 5 impossible to enforce.
When that protection was gone, Korbel said he realized the "tremendous prophylactic effect" it had in the state, referring to the preventative quality of Section 5.
He pointed out how some of the changes he and other attorneys had fought to achieve have been undone in the years since Shelby County v. Holder. School districts like that of Beaumont, Texas, were reverting to at-large districts, which hampered the representation of African Americans.
"[In] places where we litigated, they are going from single-member districts to at-large or mixed plans where minorities can still be behind the board, but they will not be meaningful anymore and Anglos will take back the control," Korbel said.
Not everything is lost, however. Section 5 is still in place, but it is up to Congress to find ways to make it apply to any jurisdictions. Under his perception of how the current U.S. Congress has performed, Korbel said he'd rather leave the Voting Rights Act alone for the foreseeable future.
On top of the challenges for the representation of minority groups in the state's polity, many of the differences in income and education that were used in the 1970s to argue for special voting protection are still a reality.
"The most impressive to me is how little change there has been in the socioeconomic information between the '70s, when I first started looking at this, and 2010," he said. "You still have the same differential between Hispanics and Anglos, and between blacks and Anglos that we saw 40 years ago."
Though the current prospects for the empowerment of African Americans and Latinos in Texas look grim from the legal perspective, Korbel remains optimistic. To him, there is something even stronger than legal protections: demographic change.
The growth of the African American and Latino communities in Texas will transform the political map, Korbel said. By 2040, demographers predict Latinos will be a majority in the state. He remarked that when he arrived in the early 1970s, there were about 2 million Latinos in the whole state. As of 2015, there were almost 2 million Hispanics in Harris County alone.
He predicts that in the coming years, many Mexican American and black youths will become eligible to vote, and that will gradually transform the political profile of the state.
"But that's not happening as fast as I would like to see," he said.
Mr. Korbel was interviewed by Vinicio Sinta in Pearsall, Texas, on March 29, 2015.