Apartheid in Texas Agriculture: A Biography of "Affirmative Action" (Part 2)

Presented at the National Association for African American Studies (Houston, Feb. 16, 1996)

As Professor Plapp explained it to me, the extension service establishment would prevent African American empowerment within the traditionally all-white agency, and Dr. McIlveen would pay the price of this obstruction. As the first African American to enroll in the Ph.D. program in the Department of Entomology at Texas A&M, Dr. McIlveen was gathering impeccable qualifications for career advancement, and this would not be allowed.

Professor Plapp encouraged me to help, because he believed Dr. McIlveen had been flunked from the Ph.D. program for reasons which had nothing to do with ability or willingness to learn. Not knowing where else to begin, I met with Dr. McIlveen, heard his incredible story, and began to file open records requests.

Briefly, let me recount the early career of Dr. McIlveen, who grew up on a farm in East Texas, graduated from the segregated Prairie View College, and entered upon two years of obligatory service in the Army. In 1963, with a glowing recommendation from his commanding officer at Ft. Hood, Dr. McIlveen entered service as a Negro County Extension Agent, because, in those days, you were either, by title, a County Extension Agent or a Negro County Extension Agent.

Dr. McIlveen’s early years at the extension service were marked by troublesome signs. He was quickly called upon to perform janitorial services at a boys’ camp and was subjected to a nigger joke told at a professional meeting on the Texas A&M campus. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, however, promised a new day of opportunity, and Dr. McIlveen hung in for the better, despite the worse.

In the early 1970’s, Dr. McIlveen won entrance to a master’s program at the University of Florida campus at Gainesville. It took him a year to determine that he was indeed eligible to participate in the program as an extension service employee, and his bosses at the extension service wanted to revoke his development leave once he got there, but Dr. McIlveen managed to find his rights and hang on to them in spite of the provocations.

After turning down an eight-page job description from the extension service with no salary attached, Dr. McIlveen returned to Texas, employed by the Cooperative Extension Service (CES) at Prairie View, apparently more in keeping with the color of his skin. As we shall see later, the extension services continue to operate according to traditional lines of race separation. The extension service at the College Station campus harbors the white tradition, while CES at Prairie View has been historically black. And the bottom line is this–while the extension service at College Station has been growing, the one at Prairie View has been steadily shrinking during the past decades.

While these events were taking place in Dr. McIlveen’s life, another black employee of the extension service filed a class action lawsuit against Texas A&M alleging race discrimination. Mr. Preston Poole’s 1974 lawsuit in Texas was echoed at that time by legal challenges against extension services in North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi, all alleging similar problems of race discrimination. And Mr. Poole is with us in the audience today. As a result of Mr. Poole’s action, Texas A&M was made to pay cash settlements and was forced to integrate its headquarters operation at the College Station campus. As part of the ensuing settlement, Dr. McIlveen was brought to the College Station campus in 1977 as a specialist in entomology. Since that time, the few African Americans who were court-ordered with Dr. McIlveen into leadership at the extension service have been phased out of the headquarters staff, leaving Dr. McIlveen as their last legacy.

In 1979, Dr. McIlveen enrolled in graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in entomology, and we thus return from our brief digression about his early career in the extension services. Suffice it to say that Dr. McIlveen would find himself flunked from the Ph.D. program by 1986 and facing a federal judge in 1990, seeking redress for race discrimination. Dr. McIlveen’s day in court lasted about a day and a half before the judge gaveled the proceedings to a close.

And this is how I found Dr. McIlveen when he was introduced to me: A man full of the most unbelievable stories you ever heard, one after the other, spanning decades of discrimination. And while his story continues to be ignored, the plight of black professionals in the extension service continues to deteriorate.

The Meaning of the McIlveen Case

After 80 years in the business, the Texas extension service has successfully guarded itself against any serious threat of integration. And informed sources indicate that the story is no better in other parts of the United States.

But Dr. McIlveen would not let his rights die beneath his feet. After he was unable to secure interviews for promotions that went to white men with sixteen years less experience, he got a new lawyer and complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After some time, the EEOC responded that it would not be able to conclude its investigation, but would allow Dr. McIlveen the right to plead his grievances, at his own expense, in federal court. And this he has done for two years, with the help of Bryan attorney Gaines West.

All this brings us back to Dec. 6, 1993, when Dr. McIlveen’s current lawsuit was filed in Houston federal court. Soon after, we looked to the newspapers. Christmas passed, then New Year’s. King’s birthday, then Valentine’s Day. I called a few reporters, left a few messages, waited a few more months. How many days pass when some lawsuit or other is not reported page one? How many months pass when some scandal about Texas A&M is not in the paper? And yet this peculiar silence. Indeed, this black hole.

After a long, hot summer I sent essays and background material to several editors. A month after that, I mailed copies of the court petition. I will name names: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, 60 Minutes, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, The Houston Chronicle, The Houston Post, The Dallas Morning News, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Austin American-Statesman, and The San Antonio Express-News. If the media have a contract with the public interest, there must be an escape clause for Dr. McIlveen. His lawsuit would not be news.

At the same time, Dr. McIlveen’s story was having a powerful effect on my students. Every semester I found some reason to tell the tale and present Dr. McIlveen for questions. Without fail, the power of his story, and the grace of his personality left indelible impressions on hundreds of young souls. And they wanted to know some things.

How do you get through this? Why don’t you run away? Why aren’t you bitter? What would you do differently? Have the media been informed? Won’t the newspapers print this story? How is this possible? We thought–we all thought–this sort of thing couldn’t happen any more.

UCLA Professor Lawrence Bobo is one among many experts examining racial attitudes in the U.S. And there are certain features of white opinion, documented by such experts, which help explain, if not excuse, the silence of the media when faced with a case such as McIlveen vs. Texas A&M. By and large, white folks do not acknowledge structural inequality in America, nor do they sense that prejudice is still widespread.

In other words, white America today is like I was three years ago, or like my students before they meet Dr. McIlveen. We are simply not prepared to believe this sort of thing, and when the facts demand attention, we want to isolate their implications. Isolated incident. Just one man. He should have left the state. Startling allegations. No system is perfect. And so on.

And so this is how I imagine that the media are reacting–no better or worse than white America itself behaves on a daily basis. For white America, Dr. McIlveen is the new invisible man. But the facts do point to a structural problem. The dots can be connected. Dr. McIlveen’s life is emblematic of a generation of black talent. The raw numbers tell us with each new year, that the black presence in the extension service is losing a war of attrition.

Civil Rights, The Next Generation

Having celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, it is time to take stock of the changes won as a result of that galvanizing law. When Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed his dream from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he said it was time for our nation to pay up. For too long, he said, America’s promise of equality had been kept like an unpaid debt.

“It is obvious today,” said King, “that America has defaulted on this promissory note in so far as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked `insufficient funds.’. . .”

Taken in this context, King’s dream expressed the urgent hope that a great nation would soon find the means to fund its outstanding obligations. Either America would embrace all of its people, or there would be no America.

How have we faced up to King’s challenge in the past 30 years? The answer, informed by the peculiar case of Dr. McIlveen, is that we have done worse than anyone might imagine. King’s mighty dream has become laughable, and America totters when it should be tilting toward democratic fulfillment.

Since I do not want to be more negative than necessary, it is important to point out that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had a profound effect on Texas A&M, instigating a radical shift in traditions. No longer would the campus be the exclusive domain of a white, male Corps of Cadets. The student population boomed from 5,000 to 42,000 in three decades.

On the other hand, the civil rights bonanza at Texas A&M has largely benefited white folks. Whereas African American students were excluded from campus in 1963, they make up only 2.7% of the student population three decades later. (Texas is 12% African American, 25% Hispanic.) If the Civil Rights Act was conceived for the purpose of empowering African Americans, then it has had some success at Texas A&M, but by far the biggest beneficiaries have been white students.

The Texas A&M paradox thus leaves African Americans in a frightful struggle for opportunity against crowds of white folks who have virtually monopolized the de-segregation boom. In fact it is possible to see a more vicious dynamic at work when the new crowds of white folks assume the cultural heritage left them by a white, male, militaristic institution. Under such conditions, you get the worrisome phenomenon witnessed in the Fall semester of 1994 as the public opinion of some 35,000 white students was galvanized by the charge of “reverse discrimination” leveled with public glee by the campus chapter of the College Republicans.

Continuous with this swing of mood, the President of Texas A&M one year later vetoed a faculty recommendation to require some multicultural studies for every student. In sum, white opinion holds that white privileges are under attack and that white minds are imposed upon when required to take seriously nonwhite cultural contributions. The behavior of the Texas media in the McIlveen case has allowed such myths to flourish unchallenged.

When County Agent Poole took his class-action case to court against Texas A&M, his loyalty was questioned. His final evaluation stated that he did a pretty good job working as a professional for the system for 30 years; nevertheless, County Agent Poole was not to be counted among the loyal. Somehow, Poole’s efforts to continue the struggle for civil rights were construed as opposing the “loyal” interests of the Texas A&M University System.

Indeed, the first generation of the post-Civil Rights Era produced some heroes among us, but mostly, as Hunter Thompson swore, we were a generation of swine. When the Civil Rights Era began in 1964, the extension services in Texas employed about 125 African American professionals. Today, that number has dropped to 30. Yet Dr. McIlveen is viewed as an isolated case? Indeed, the only thing unique about Dr. McIlveen is his determination not to be swept along by the trend of his generation.

Talk until your heart is Republican blue about the threat of reverse discrimination, but please study the facts. As far back as 1941 there were 85 African American County Agents in Texas. Today, the Aggies have cut that number by more than half. There have never been any African Americans ever to serve as County Agents in West Texas (west of Interstate 35 North) since the founding of the extension service in 1914. Since the Civil Rights Act, African American employment has been whittled away until, today, if you are an African American County Agent, chances are good that you work near Houston.

Racism in the Agricultural Establishment

Racism in the extension services is neither new nor surprising, and it is remarkably well documented. Immediately after the Civil Rights Act was passed, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (CCR) filed a report on the agricultural establishment: “the Commission found gross discrimination and inequity in a number of Department of Agriculture programs, particularly the Cooperative Extension Service.” Responding to these findings, the chief Civil Rights officer for USDA, “initiated, staffed, and received approval for a Departmental complaint procedure for extension workers who felt they had been denied equal employment opportunity because of racial discrimination.”

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