This blog post was composed by Joe Wilson, a Ph.D. student in the History Department.
This past summer, I processed a large section of the Lester Gibson papers. Gibson, who became the first African American elected as a McLennan County Commissioner, served in that role for Precinct 2 from 1990 to 2018. A Navy veteran of the Vietnam War and graduate of Baylor University, Gibson was a respected local politician and community leader. He was especially active in Waco’s African American community: he organized festivals and memorials, worked to improve educational opportunities, and spoke out on inequality and injustice. Waco posthumously recognized his dedication to public service in 2022 by renaming six blocks of Washington Street to Lester Gibson Way.
As I was processing these files, I realized I had very little understanding of what exactly a County Commissioner does. Federal and state politics and positions are relatively high-profile, but county-level government is often overlooked. However, county government affects people in their day-to-day lives more than the federal government does and provides more opportunities for citizens to engage and make a difference in their communities. Learning more about county government was one of the highlights of my time at Poage this summer.
So what does a County Commissioner do? In Texas, the County Commissioner is a member of the Commissioners Court. This entity is comprised of four county commissioners and the county judge, and they make most of the policy decisions for their county. This includes budget and tax decisions, setting salaries and benefits for county employees, filling temporary vacancies in elected county positions like Justice of the Peace, and accepting bids for county projects. Each county commissioner represents one of four precincts within the county and is responsible for building and maintaining the roads within their precinct. The commissioners court meets regularly to discuss county business and vote on important decisions.
Lester Gibson’s precinct covered most of downtown Waco, Bellmead, and Southeast McLennan County. This means he represented the interests of most of the urban residents of McLennan County on the Commissioners Court. He spent a lot of time listening to his constituents and working to address their concerns. The County Commissioner is one of the most accessible government officials for constituents, and since each precinct is relatively small, they can help to address the concerns of individual citizens. Commissioner Gibson dealt with issues from the location of a new public library branch to renaming roads to intervening in employment and benefits disputes. Constituents could contact Gibson about any local issues on their mind and have him be their primary governmental advocate.
Beyond his official work for McLennan County, Commissioner Gibson also used his position as a public figure to work for the community in non-governmental ways. He served on the board of Waco United Way which provided funding for various charitable community organizations. He was at the center of several disputes between the African American citizens of Waco and the Waco Independent School District, using his position to draw attention to educational inequities in the area. He also participated in several charity fundraisers as a speaker or featured guest. Finally, he organized annual Harambee Festivals to celebrate African American culture. Many County Commissioners are active in the community beyond their official duties, and Lester Gibson certainly exemplified this active participation.
Working on the Lester Gibson papers this summer helped me learn a lot about county commissioners and their roles in the community. The County Commissioner is an essential part of local government in Texas, making decisions that have an immediate impact on their communities. Lester Gibson worked hard to improve McLennan County, and each county commissioner across the country has the chance to do the same. Take the time to get to know your local county commissioner or county council member and find out what they are doing to help your community.