Sustaining an Ethnic Mosaic Is This Texas City's Goal Mayor Studies Experiences of Other Metropolitan Areas

Article excerpt

THE eruption in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict had no echo here, but as he watched the flames on television, Houston Mayor Robert Lanier took little comfort from the fact. "I don't think our success or failure depends on whether there was a riot or not," he says.

In his view, Houston is merely at an earlier point on the same track that other major American cities are following. "We have a chance to learn from them," Mr. Lanier says.

When it comes to interracial relations, though, Houston can also ponder its own past.

One of the most regrettable racial incidents in United States history was the Houston riot and mutiny of 1917. It began when a battalion of black troops from Illinois arrived to guard Camp Logan, now the site of Memorial Park.

Over the course of a very hot August, the soldiers were harassed by Houston police, who enforced "Jim Crow" laws such as segregated seating on street cars.

Eventually, the police assaulted two soldiers. Their comrades heard rumors of this and concluded that a white mob was coming for them. Up to 100 seized arms and ammunition and marched on the town. In the ensuing clash, 16 locals and four soldiers were killed.

This event was followed by the largest court-martial in American military history. Nineteen soldiers were hanged. Sixty-three others received life sentences.

Within memory is the 1977 case of Jose Campos Torres, a Hispanic laborer. Three Houston police officers who arrested Torres for disturbing the peace beat him and threw him into Buffalo Bayou, where he drowned. They were convicted of violating Torres's civil rights.

Houston became more racially tolerant during the 1980s, under the five administrations of liberal mayor Kathryn Whitmire. Although Lanier defeated Ms. Whitmire partly on the strength of a backlash against crime - an issue that for some voters has racial overtones - he has continued to build bridges across Houston's ethnic mosaic. …