Following the demise of the Populist insurgency after 1896, the Democratic Party dominated politics in Texas for six more decades. But within the party, open warfare often raged between three loosely defined groups of Democrats:
- conservatives, who were pro-business, frequently resistant to allowing progress on civil rights for African Americans and Mexican Americans, and defensive of existing social conventions
- liberals, who were progressive on civil rights, critical of corporate leadership and the pro-business bias of state government, and in favor of increasing state services to the poor
- moderates, who sought to mediate between these two groups, typically by attempting to take middle-ground positions on civil rights and social services while seeking to maintain favor with business interests in the state.
The development of the civil rights movement in the South catalyzed change in the nature and political position of the Democratic Party in Texas in the 1960s and 1970s. The story of the state Democratic Party during this period is tightly intertwined with the national struggle over civil rights for African Americans and ethnic minorities in the United States.
What we now refer to in the overly homogenized term "the civil rights movement" emerged from a diverse array of legal actions, grassroots organization, and protests with a long history of struggle. Anti-segregation protests dot the early twentieth century history of the United States, including protests at the University of Texas at Austin and other colleges and universities in Texas. The movement was fixed in the public eye by the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, in which the Court invalidated the doctrine of "separate but equal" as applied to grade school education. The following year, the Court ruled that segregated school districts must integrate with "all deliberate speed," pressuring state and local officials to recognize the implications of the Brown decision: the legalized racial segregation practiced throughout the South and in parts of the Southwest since Reconstruction was unconstitutional and its dismantling would be enforced by the national government.
Later that same year, Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, setting off a successful boycott by African Americans of the municipal bus service. This marked the beginning of more than a decade of nationally visible protests, boycotts, and other forms of resistance to segregation, all against a steady backdrop of legal action in state and federal courts.
The civil rights movement widened a long-standing division between tense allies in the national Democratic Party. On one side of this split were white, conservative, mostly southern Democrats, the mainstay of traditional Democratic power in the South since the Civil War. On the other side were liberal, mostly northern Democrats, as well as African Americans and ethnic minorities. These diverse groups had gathered in the Democratic Party during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, but the civil rights movement raised a fundamental contradiction inside the Democratic Party. In many areas, political control by local Democratic officials and their supporters rested on an electorate that excluded African Americans by using a variety of legal and extralegal means to keep them off the voting rolls.
Civil rights legislation promised to disrupt these practices, along with the post-Reconstruction social segregation upon which they rested. Conservative white disaffection in the South reached critical mass when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many southern Democrats, convinced that the Democratic Party was pandering to African Americans and ethnic groups, voted either for George Wallace's third party candidacy or for Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential election, and never returned to voting for Democratic presidential candidates afterward. They joined a growing number of new Republicans and independents already attracted to the Republican Party's platform calling for low taxes and reversing or limiting the growth of the government services.
The effect in Texas of the civil rights earthquake reflected the particular history of the state. African Americans were slowly being integrated into the Democratic voting base in the state following the outlawing of so-called "white primaries" (which excluded black voters) by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944 in Smith v. Allwright, and the national recruitment of African Americans into the Democratic Party as a result of appeals tied to the New Deal policies of Franklin Roosevelt. Though African Americans continued to experience racial tensions within the Democratic Party for decades, by the 1970s they constituted one of the most reliable blocs of Democratic voters.
In the short term, ironically, growing black support for Democratic candidates helped keep the conservative white Democratic elite, many of whom had resisted granting full political rights to African-Americans and Mexican-Americans, in dominant positions in the party. Until the 1960s, the Texas Democratic Party was so dominant that the Democratic primary election usually determined who would hold office. The widespread allegiance to the Democratic Party and the stigma attached to being Republican virtually assured victory to Democrats on the general election ballot. As this chapter's feature on Decline of Democratic Dominance illustrates, many more voters participated in the Democratic Party primary than participated in the general election throughout the 1950s.
Beginning in the 1960s that ratio became inverted - increasingly more people voted in the general election than in the Democratic primary, a sign that intraparty tensions were eroding the Democrats' electoral lock on Texas government. As decades of dominance by the party's conservative faction gave way to pitched battle between old-line conservatives and newly-mobilized liberals, many longtime Democratic conservatives found a new home among the growing ranks of Republican Texans.
Beneath the voting numbers, internal politics in the parties, particularly among Democrats, churned. African Americans and Mexican Americans were slowly becoming more integrated as factions in the Democratic Party, as minority voting blocs became more important to electoral success. Mexican American political elites, for example, were active in the internal conflicts in the Democratic Party over the decision by Democratic governor Allan Shivers to throw Democratic support behind Republican presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956.  When Mexican Americans subsequently organized independent efforts to win local office under the rubric of La Raza Unida Party, organized in 1970 to elect Mexican American candidates, they revealed a long-simmering dissatisfaction in areas where Mexican Americans and progressives had been dominated by conservative Democratic office holders and party officials.
As moderates and liberals gained ground with the increased integration of ethnic and racial minorities in the Democratic Party, many welcomed the departure of the conservatives with whom they had long battled. The long term victory of moderates and liberals, however, has not been without significant political costs. If the Democratic Party has changed and become more defined, the political culture in the state has not changed at the same pace. The social conservatism and classical liberalism that has always influenced the state now exerts less influence in the Democratic Party. But those who resisted changes in the Texas Democratic Party, as well as many who came to Texas from other states and had no Democratic ties to forsake, had another party to which they could turn. In recent years, that party, the Republican Party, has become a powerful and highly organized alternative.