When a Fallen Mexican American War Hero Was Denied a Wake, a Civil Rights Push Began - HISTORY

Dr. Hector Perez Garcia, who founded the American G.I. Forum in Corpus Christi in 1947.

A surgeon in six European combat zones by the time he returned from World War II, Garcia quickly saw what he and other Mexican American veterans were facing when he opened a clinic with his brother in a Corpus Christi barrio: Neglect and benefit delays from the Veterans Administration. Poverty wages and shacks with no running water for migrant laborers in the government’s Bracero Program. Lousy, segregated schools for their children.

The G.I. Forum raised funds to pay the Texas poll tax to get hundreds more of its members to cast ballots. Their fight for improvements and against discrimination began attracting national attention. A 1951 Look magazine piece, “Texas’s Forgotten People,” showed how infant diarrhea, diphtheria and tuberculosis ravaged many among the 1.5 million Mexican Americans that “live on little more than hope.”

Teaming with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the G.I. Forum successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that having an all-white jury denied convicted murderer Pete Hernandez equal protection under the law. The ruling in the landmark Hernandez vs. Texas case effectively broadened the protection of civil rights laws to Hispanics and all other non-white groups.

Both organizations teamed up again the following year to successfully begin challenging the segregation of Mexican and Mexican American children in four south Texas school districts.

READ MORE: The Mendez Family Fought School Segregation 8 Years Before Brown v. Board of Ed

Mexican American Rights Get a National Spotlight

The 1960s brought the G.I. Forum to a more national—and more political—stage of its civil rights struggle. Garcia became a national coordinator for presidential hopeful Senator John F. Kennedy’s Viva Kennedy! campaign to deliver a large bloc of Texas votes. After President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in, the G.I. Forum gained a friend in the Oval Office.

When Johnson declared his War on Poverty program in January 1965, he cited as inspiration his college days teaching grindingly poor, hungry students at an all-Mexican school in Cotulla, Texas. “It never even occurred to me in my wildest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country,” Johnson told the nation. “But now I do have that chance, and I’ll let you in on a secret. I plan to use it.”

Lyndon B. Johnson and his students, Cotulla, Texas, 1928-1929

Lyndon B. Johnson with the 6th and 7th grade students he taught in Cotulla, Texas from 1928 to 1929. .

The “weapons” he deployed in that war: creating Medicare and Medicaid, early childhood program Head Start, and work-study programs; expanding social security benefits; making food stamps permanent; and sending more federal funds to poor schools.

But appointing Mexican Americans to high-profile civil rights and economic development positions—something the American G.I. Forum demanded—came late in Johnson’s term, sometimes straining the relationship between Garcia and the president. After vocal protests by Garcia and his group, Johnson appointed another Forum member to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Garcia was appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and as a special representative and ambassador to the United Nations, tasked with improving Latin American relations.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s landmark achievements in civil rights and voting rights in the mid 1960s seemed to center more on African Americans, and the carnage of the Vietnam War flashing on American TV screens siphoned away his attention. Mexican Americans’ struggles to end terrible living conditions and segregation, and to join farmworkers’ fight for better wages and working conditions, was taking a back burner in Washington.

READ MORE: The U.S. Deported More Than a Million of Its Own Citizens to Mexico During the Great Depression

Mexican American Activism Evolves

When war and continued civil unrest led Johnson to announce in March 1968 that he would not run for reelection, south Texas folks knew they were losing a friend at the White House. Newer, younger and increasingly visible—and vocal—Chicano civil rights groups emerged, decrying the war and advocating Chicano (Mexican American) nationalism.

Some goals were the same, but theirs was a starkly different message from the previous generation’s activists’ demand for their rights as patriots and postwar Americans. With Johnson gone, the American G.I. Forum kept up its activism in the 1970s; today, they still advocate for veterans and do job outreach.

In recognition of this pioneering postwar Mexican American civil rights movement, President Ronald Reagan awarded Garcia the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

“Either singlehandedly or with help, he was going to end discrimination against Hispanics,” said Garcia’s brother Xicotencatl P. Garcia. “It’s one of those things you wonder: What kind of vision is that? The problem is so mammoth. But that’s the vision he had.”

READ MORE: What Was the Chicano Movement?

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