Graves tells of experiences in segregated South, Texas legislature
Curtis Graves speaks during the John W. Stormont Lecture Series and the Museum of the Coastal Bendís ďAn Evening with Curtis GravesĒ on Thursday at the Leo J. Welder Center for the Performing Arts.

It didn’t take Curtis Graves long to understand his role in Texas’ House of Representatives was not going to be like almost all of the other state legislators.

Graves, Barbara Jordan and Joe Lockridge became the first African Americans since 1896 to serve in the state legislature when they were elected in 1966.

“Realizing I was one of only three black persons in the House of Representatives at the time was an awesome responsibility,” Graves told an audience of approximately 200 people during the John W. Stormont Lecture Series and the Museum of the Coastal Bend’s “An Evening With Curtis Graves” on Oct. 20 at the Leo J. Welder Center for the Performing Arts.

“I realized that it was going to be difficult for me to pass anything substantive. So I was going to have to be more of an educator than a legislator. I could educate people about what was going wrong.”

The 78-year-old Graves, who served in the state legislature from 1967-73, spoke about growing up in segregated New Orleans, working on Civil Rights issues with Dr. Martin Luther King, serving in the state legislature and the current political state of America.

Graves said his mother would always tell him the reason they rode in the back of the bus was because it was more comfortable, they could watch movies better from the balconies, and they didn’t eat at segregated restaurants because their dishes were dirty.

“My mother had a childhood experience that said to her, ‘I’m never going to allow a child of mine to feel the horror, sting of segregation,’ ” Graves said. “So she devised a group of lies for me to help cushion the blow of raising a child in the segregated South.”

During his time in the House of Representatives, Graves introduced a bill to ban dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) that did not pass. But five years after Graves left the state legislature, the agricultural insecticide was banned nationwide.

“Every farmer in the state swore by DDT. They would eat it if they could,” Graves said.

One state bill introduced by Graves that was passed was one that set standards for public bathrooms.

“Prior to the law that I passed, if you had a bar, you could put a piece of wood up behind the bar and call that the bathroom,” Graves said. “I called it the ‘Clean Crapper Bill.’ It passed and made it mandatory to have a sink, soap and a commode.”

Graves, a graduate of Texas Southern University and Princeton University, said the most controversial bill he introduced was one to regulate the sale of pistols.

“It’s still a sore subject in this state,” Graves said. “There was a special session called in the summer of 1968. The state needed more revenue. You could only introduce a bill on raising money. I crafted a bill that would charge $5 for a certificate. Once you had that certificate, you could buy as many pistols as you wanted. It licensed the person, not the gun. The only questions other than your name and your phone number was if you had ever been convicted of a felony and had you ever been adjudicated for the same.

“One week after I introduced that bill, I was getting mail from as far away as Australia. The National Rifle Association had taken notice of the bill and alerted its membership about me and the bill.”

The bill did not pass.

“It was a lot of fun,” Graves said of his tenure in the legislature. “I decided to run for Congress, and the people chose someone else. That’s the way it is.”

After leaving politics, Graves served 30 years in the academic affairs division and as Director of Civil Affairs for NASA. 

Graves expressed frustration with both presidential candidates.

“I know everybody in here is not of the same mind, but you invited me here so you’re going to listen to me until I’m through,” Graves joked. “There is something wrong with us as a nation when 25 percent of us or more actually think that a person who has never been elected to any public office, who has never had any experience in foreign policy, who has never done anything but run a business and act like a king can serve as president.

“There’s also something wrong with our nation when a nominee for president says college education ought to be free. If you actually think a president can do something like that, you must be smoking something. That’s not going to be changed by any President of the United States.”

Next up in the John W. Stormont Lecture Series will be James Harkins, who is the Director of Public Services for the Texas General Land Office. Harkins will speak on “Save Texas History” at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 10 at the Museum of the Coastal Bend, which is located at 2200 E. Red River Street.

Published: Tuesday, 18 October 2016

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