“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (U.S. Declaration of Independence).
In 1848, the U.S. took over half of the sovereign Republic of Mexico’s territory after the 1846-48 U.S.-Mexico War. In ceremonies from Texas to California, the tri-color Mexican flag was lowered and the U.S. stars and stripes was raised.
In doing so, presiding U.S. officials welcomed Mexican-descent residents as fellow citizens. The population was also reassured that the Declaration’s words above applied to them, adding that the U.S. Constitution would protect their God-given human rights.
Nonetheless, almost immediately, arriving Anglo and Northern European-descent people adopted an abhorrent attitude toward Mexico and Mexican-descent people. The bigotry was swift; sanctioned through official colonial-style governing decrees over the former Mexican territory.
Ranchos, real estate, livestock, and other assets were seized. Deliberately, U.S. administrators then redistributed them to Anglo settlers, as done to Native American lands elsewhere in the country.
The question is, did Spanish Mexican Texans fight back? The answer is yes. However, for generations they were forced to endure indignities as the only way to survive. Eventually, they won liberty through a long process I call:
The Texas Two-step.
- 1954 U.S. Supreme Court’s Class Apart Decision (Chief Justice Earl Warren)
- 1964 Civil Rights Act (President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ))
Brief summaries of each document are shown below. Before proceeding, did these documents abolish ethnic/racial discrimination? Answer: No. That’s because even now, the dominant Anglo mainstream society hasn’t as yet reconciled itself with the Spanish-speaking Mexican roots of this great place we call Texas.
The 1954 Class Apart Decision. Some readers may have heard of this decision, but not be aware of its origins, purpose, and impact.
By way of background, well-intentioned Texas elementary school teachers taught students that the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution applied to one and all. Yet, Mexican-descent parents knew better.
In a nutshell, though legally considered white, Mexican-descent people were treated as second-rate (class apart) citizens, who daily confronted verbal/nonverbal discrimination. One of the most humiliating was that restaurants and places of business had signs posted at entrances prohibiting Mexicans from entering.
Likewise, having to attend segregated Mexican Schools was devastating for young Mexican-descent children. First, they didn’t understand why they couldn’t attend the same schools as white students. Second, the few who did were subjected to nonstop harassment. In the end, Mexican-descent students were able to complete their studies only because of their parents’ strong will.
As an example, Goliad’s Spanish Mexican-descent citizens experienced it firsthand. Unjustly, the descendants of founding families (Carbajal, de la Garza, Martínez, Rubio, Ybarbo, and many others) underwent what can only be described as a double-standard educational system in Texas.
Equally damaging, property deeds in white neighborhoods contained clauses prohibiting the sale or rent to Mexican-descent buyers or renters. In many Texas counties, Spanish-surnamed citizens couldn’t serve in juries.
It was the latter injustice that the Class Apart Decision sought to remedy. The Peter Hernández court case provided the vehicle to do it.
The details: (a) Mr. Hernández was found guilty of murder by an all-white jury; and (2) his defense attorneys appealed, citing that their client had been denied a fair trial because the jury didn’t include members of his peers (Spanish-surnamed jurors). After the state of Texas denied the claim, their appeal reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
This was a major milestone for Mexican-descent Texans. It was the first time that the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case involving post-WWII Mexican American civil rights. Also, it was the first time that Mexican-descent attorneys had addressed the Supreme Court. What an impressive influence they had on the justices.
The team of brilliant band of brother attorneys won their case: Carlos Cadena, Gus García, John J. Herrera, James de Anda, and Cris Alderete. The League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the American G.I. Forum civil rights groups were actively engaged. Importantly, through their fund drives, the Mexican-descent population was kept informed and able to contribute what they could afford.
Chief Justice Earl Warren’s ruling was precise. Mexican-descent Texans were being treated as a “class apart” and he directed the State of Texas to end the practice.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act. Unequal application of justice in the U.S. for blacks and minorities was an accepted fact before 1964. President John F. Kennedy (JFK) had studied previous efforts to level the playing field, and designed a bill to fix the disparity. Sadly, when JFK was assassinated, the bill was stuck in committee, held up by intolerant legislators.
Upon assuming the presidency, President Johnson pressured congressional leaders into passing President Kennedy’s civil rights legislation, resulting in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Interestingly, there’s more to this story.
* Importantly, LBJ’s interest in equality had earnestly begun in Cotulla, Texas. While attending college in San Marcos, he paused his studies to teach at a segregated Mexican school in Cotulla. The experience so affected him that later on in his life, he recalled that teaching poor Mexican-descent students had formed his deep belief in the dignity of life.
* In signing civil rights legislation (human rights, medical, employment, education, housing, etc.), LBJ made enemies in the Democratic Party. It was at this time that the two major political parties switched places.
– For the record, the Republican Party was established as an anti-slavery party and is why it was then referred to as the Party of Lincoln. On the other hand, the Democratic Party controlling the South supported segregation and had fought both JFK and LBJ every step of the way.
– Once LBJ signed the laws, segregationist democrats left their party and joined the Republican Party. Commandeering its platform, they ensured that it would no longer be the party of Lincoln. That is why today, the southern strategy agenda still rules the Republican Party.
Undeniably, LBJ had upset intolerant party leaders earlier in 1949 during the Pvt. Felix Longoria episode.
– Pvt. Longoria had been killed in WWII (Philippines, 1945), but his body wasn’t recovered/identified until 1949. His remains were then returned to Three Rivers, Texas, his hometown. When his family asked the local funeral home to handle burial arrangements, they declined because Pvt. Longoria was of Mexican-descent. The family was deeply hurt, but used their grief to mobilize and fight the town’s prejudice.
– With the help of Dr. Hector P. Garcia, American G.I. Forum, the state and national press got involved and so did Texas Senator Johnson. Having little patience for stonewalling by local and Texas state officials, LBJ arranged for Pvt. Longoria to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.
In summary, here’s two things Mexican-descent Texans must always remember:
(l) Their Spanish-speaking ancestors were promised equality after 1848. However, even today, the dark bigotry shadow hovers over Spanish–surnamed citizens in Texas and throughout the Southwest.
(2) By the time justice was achieved 100 years later, it wasn’t the Declaration or Constitution that got it done, but the Texas Two-step — the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Class Apart Decision and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Lastly, what could have influenced the Class Apart lawyers, Chief Justice Warren, and President Lyndon Johnson to extend equality to Mexican-descent Texans? Perhaps they were inspired by William Faulkner’s words: “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice… If people all over the world did this, it would change the earth”.
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