Long before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, attorney Richard D. (R.D.) Evans waged the fight for civil rights from his Waco law office. As Waco’s first African American attorney, he became one of the most influential early twentieth century civil rights lawyers in Texas.
Born in Burleson County, circa 1873, Evans graduated from Prairie View Industrial College and worked as schoolteacher in Burleson County until 1909. Three years later, he graduated from Howard University’s law school and returned to Texas. Evans practiced law briefly in Brenham before settling in Waco in 1913. Slowly building a career serving the legal needs of Waco’s Black community, Evans soon established himself as the champion of Black Texans’ voting rights.
While he handled cases regarding jury selection and other civil rights, Evans rose to prominence constructing the legal challenge to the Texas white primary system. Disenfranchisement in primary elections and general opposition toward any African-American voting prompted Evans to take the case of Waco grocer E.L. Sublett in February 1919. In Sublett v. Duke, Sublett sued the Waco Democratic Executive Committee for its failure to allow African-Americans to vote in primaries. Judge George Clark ruled in favor of Sublett and Evans, a stunning decision that temporarily expanded voting rights. His success in defeating the white primary led Evans to head the Texas NAACP’s efforts to challenge the disenfranchisement at the federal level. Simultaneously, Texas moved to reinstate the white primary in 1922. Two years later, Evans brought a white primary for review by the Supreme Court. Love v. Nixon proved unsuccessful, but the language of the Justice Holmes’ majority opinion left open the possibility of a future challenge.
Evans' victories and defeats provided the precedents upon which the NAACP secured voting rights for African Americans beginning in the 1940s. In the wake of Love, the Texas NAACP, and eventually the national office, sought to make defeating the white primary one of its primary objectives. It was a struggle in which Evans remained deeply invested. The white primary persisted despite two successful Supreme Court cases—in 1927 and 1932—brought by El Paso doctor Lawrence Nixon. However, the Texas NAACP also expanded in size and scope during the 1930s due to the efforts of Evans, Juanita Craft, and A. Maceo Smith. After years of successfully litigating civil rights cases and active leadership, Evans became president of the Texas NAACP and in 1936 was elected to NAACP national board of directors. Connecting to the national NAACP brought its attorney Thurgood Marshall to Texas in late 1938 to help develop a federal legal strategy to combat the white primary. In 1944, it was Marshall’s Supreme Court case for Lonnie Smith in Smith v. Allwright that ended the over twenty year reign of the white primary in Texas.
Unfortunately, R.D. Evans did not live to see this victory. He conducted his litigation on behalf of civil rights during the 1920s and 30s under constant threat of violence to himself and his family. Still he persisted in that work. On June 26, 1938, a train in downtown Waco collided with a car driven by Evans, killing him. The circumstances surrounding Evans' death remain dubious, but likely unresolvable. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery. Evans’ life-long dedication to civil rights made him a seminal figure in securing equal voting rights for African-Americans in Texas. When President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act it served as the culmination of years of grassroots efforts by Evans and many others to ensure the voting rights of all Americans, regardless of color.