“The whites won't like it.”
When a small-town Texas funeral home, using these words, refused to hold a wake for decorated World War II veteran Felix Longoria, the ensuing controversy sent the fight for Mexican American civil rights soaring onto the national stage—with some help from a rising U.S. senator named Lyndon Johnson.
Private Longoria, a Mexican American soldier from Three Rivers, Texas, was flushing out Japanese soldiers retreating from the island of Luzon in the Philippines when a sniper cut him down just months before the end of World War II. His heroic actions posthumously earned him the Purple Heart and other military medals.
It took the U.S. Army four years to get his body back home to Three Rivers. When his widow Beatriz Longoria went to make arrangements at the town’s only funeral home, they offered to bury him in the “Mexican section” of the cemetery, segregated by barbed wire. But they told Mrs. Longoria the wake could not be held in the funeral parlor because it would anger the town’s white citizens.
The local Mexican American community and its many World War II veterans, tired of being treated like second-class citizens, were incensed. Dr. Hector Garcia, chair of the new veterans’ civil rights group American G.I. Forum, fired off letters and telegrams to state and local officials condemning discrimination against a Mexican American soldier who had given his life serving his country. He sent another telegram to U.S. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson on January 10, 1949.
At a protest meeting the next night, which drew some 1,000 people, Senator Johnson’s swift response, which arrived via telegram, was read: “I deeply regret to learn that the prejudice of some individuals extends even beyond this life,” Johnson wrote. “This injustice…is deplorable.”
The freshman senator went on to say that he had arranged for Longoria to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery—making him the first of the at least 400,000 Mexican Americans who fought in World War II to receive this honor. At the interment, on February 16, 1949, Johnson, his wife “Lady Bird” and a representative of President Harry Truman stood beside Longoria’s family as military musicians played “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
The discrimination Longoria had faced, even in death, made national headlines. Columnist Walter Winchell, for one, declared, “The state of Texas, which looms so large on the map, looks mighty small tonight.”
Correcting this injustice sparked an appetite for more. “Both Garcia and Johnson were unusually perceptive leaders who saw immediately that the Longoria case could have national implications—Garcia for the Forum, and LBJ for LBJ, who knew he would be on the right side of history,” said Julie Leininger Pycior, author of LBJ & Mexican Americans: The Paradox of Power.
READ MORE: The Surprising Role Mexico Played in World War II
The G.I. Forum’s Fight Takes Off
For Mexican Americans in the American Southwest, the controversy drove home Garcia’s main message for this pioneering movement: They were as American as everyone else—and as such, had to fight to demand their rights. With the founding G.I. Forum chapter in Corpus Christi less than a year old, Garcia took to the highways in his blue Cadillac to help veterans organize 40 new chapters in Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.
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.”
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?