African-Americans had run for public office in Austin before, but Wilhelmina Delco maintains she was the first to win a citywide race because of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Delco, now 88, told KXAN this week she doesn’t believe she would have won her spot on the Austin school board, which in 1968 was not divided into individual districts, had King not been killed two days before the election.
“When he was assassinated, for just being himself,” Delco said, “I think a lot of people, particularly in Austin, said, ‘I’m not like that. I wouldn’t do that, and here’s an opportunity to show that I’m not like that.'”
Delco was a Chicago transplant who followed her husband, Exalton, to the capital city while he pursued a doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin. The couple settled here and never left.
“We lived in east Austin,” Delco said, “and for years, whites, for all intents and purposes, never crossed I-35.”
Delco decided to run for school board, not to make a statement, but out of concern for the eastside schools she was sending her kids to. The election was scheduled for Saturday, April 6, 1968, and two days before the polls opened, an assassin shot and killed King on the balcony of a Memphis motel.
“We had planned election day for students who really supported me to knock door to door and remind people to vote. And after that I called them and told them, ‘No, don’t do that,'” Delco said. “I just felt like we had no way of knowing what the reaction was of people who had never voted for a black before.”
The reaction in Austin was muted compared to other cities, where riots broke out, dozens of people died and thousands were hurt or jailed in the days that followed.
“Austin was still a very small town in the ‘60s,” Glen Castlebury, a now-retired reporter for the Austin Statesman, told KXAN. He covered city hall at the time of King’s assassination and got word of the civil rights leader’s death in the early evening.
Then-mayor Harry Akin was preparing to leave city offices to be with people in his city, Castlebury said, and the reporter followed. Their first stop was a black hotel in the still-segregated city.
“There were a lot of men in that room and they were all sitting with their backs to us at the door,” Castlebury recalled. “They were watching television, and the television was all about Dr. King.”
The mayor of a big city was addressing the violence taking place there in the live broadcast, he said, “and some fellow in that audience watching that blurted out real loud, ‘Wonder where our mayor is.’ And from behind him Harry just spoke out and said, ‘Sir, I’m right here with you.'”
From there Akin walked to east Austin, going to black-owned businesses, shaking hands on the street, and talking to people there, Castlebury said. His article in the next day’s paper made no mention of violence or unrest, because there wasn’t any to speak of.
Dozens of students from Huston-Tillotson University marched to the capitol that night, Castlebury wrote, and the next day a larger group held a memorial service for King on the UT campus before marching themselves.
“I think it started the way toward really opening up the lines of communication and making improvements,” Castlebury said. “And most of all just being aware.”
“I think it changed the awareness,” Delco agreed.
Prior to King’s death, she hadn’t experienced overt racial violence in her adopted home. Instead, there was an understanding in Austin that separate accommodations and separate job opportunities were just part of life. That’s also why she believes the city didn’t see the kind of violence others did that night.
“There was geographical separation,” Delco said.
Austin still lives with the legacy of that segregation. Delco lives with a different legacy: She easily won the school board seat two days after Dr. King was assassinated, and then went on to serve for 20 years in the Texas House of Representatives, among many other public service roles she took on.
Even now, 50 years later, she doesn’t think that first election would have gone the way it did without the tragedy that preceded it.
“His speeches wouldn’t have made a difference,” she said. “But his death did.”
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