AP NEWS

The other civil rights revolution — 50 years later

November 10, 2018

The civil rights revolution of the 1960s led to 1964 and 1965 civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination in employment, public accommodations, education and voting. In 1968, the Fair Housing Act outlawed discrimination in the renting and selling of housing. The Black Power movement was gaining momentum in America’s biggest cities.

But another civil rights revolution was beginning, too, among what some called “a forgotten minority.” Young Mexican-Americans — calling themselves Chicanos — were making demands for their rights. Chicanos were staging school walkouts in California, Colorado and Texas to demand better schools. The U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies were picketed for not paying attention to the plight of Mexican-Americans.

In 1966, the White House convened a national civil rights conference titled “To Fulfill These Dreams.” Yet, no Mexican-Americans or Native Americans were invited to participate in the historic conference. A small group of Mexican-Americans stood outside the meeting in Washington, D.C., to protest their exclusion. From this small group, the foundations were laid to form new chapters of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC; the American GI Forum; the Washington D.C. Huelga (Strike) Committee; and the Southwest Council of La Raza.

Fifty years ago, much of the Mexican-American population was concentrated in the U.S. West and Southwest, with few outside that region realizing that Mexican-Americans were suffering some of the same bigotry and brutality encountered by African-Americans. It was time to raise their voices.

In 1968, Mexican-American children were still being punished, sometimes with physical force, for speaking Spanish, the language of their parents or grandparents, on public school property. It was a crime under state law to speak Spanish during school activities. Of the 21 members of the State Board of Education, all were Anglos except one.

When the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights met in San Antonio in 1968 for a six-day hearing on the plight of Mexican-Americans in Texas and other Southwestern states, one Anglo San Antonio school principal told commissioners and their investigators that Mexican-Americans had a different genetic makeup than Anglos. A white principal told the commission’s staff that he opposed teaching Spanish beyond the third grade because “it destroys loyalty to America.”

A manager at a phone company in El Paso told a commission investigator that his company didn’t employ many Mexican-Americans, “because our employees had to climb up telephone poles, and everyone knows that most Mexicans are afraid of heights.”

Mexican-Americans were often referred to as Mexicans, even though they were U.S. citizens.

In 1968, only 28 of 1,749 Texas Department of Public Safety employees were Mexican-Americans. Two prominent Texas attorneys testified to the commission that they had tried hundreds of cases in South Texas, and that virtually all juries had only white non-Hispanic members, even in counties where 80 percent of the population was Hispanic.

A director of the newly formed Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, testified that the civil rights organization had just filed a lawsuit “against the swimming pool in Marlin, Texas, where the proprietor told our chief counsel, ‘I would rather close the swimming pool than let a Mexican in.’”

Shortly before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission met in San Antonio on the campus of Our Lady of the Lake College, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Dr. Hector P. Garcia, a Corpus Christi physician, to become the first Mexican-American member of the commission.

The issues discussed during those hearing ranged from education, economic security, employment and farmworkers to the administration of justice. Reports issued as a result of that hearing sometimes became the evidence used in civil rights lawsuits later filed by MALDEF and other civil rights groups. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1968 had provided the civil rights issues confronting the Mexican-American something that Mexican-Americans had never had before — official recognition by the U.S. government.

Mexican Americans today:

‘Holding up the mirror’

Three years ago, a small group of community activists in San Antonio, including some who had been present at the 1968 hearing, met to plan an event for 2018 marking the 50th anniversary of the event. It would be held at Our Lady of the Lake University, the site of the historic civil rights hearings.

Many of the same issues facing Mexican-Americans in 1968 continue. Many Mexican-Americans still attend mostly underfunded public schools in school districts intentionally formed to separate and segregate residents by income. Voting rights violations and the terrible treatment of new immigrants that existed 50 years ago still dominate front pages of newspapers in Texas and throughout the country today.

The upcoming “50 Years Later: Holding Up the Mirror” conference will address five decades of progress and continuing struggles of the Mexican-American community in the Southwest. The conference Thursday through Saturday at Our Lady of the Lake University is free and open to the public.

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Chair Catherine E. Lhamon and commission staff director Mauro Morales will join Mexican civil rights leaders and advocates from Texas and other states.

The commission, 50 years after the first 1968 hearing on Mexican-Americans, in a formal report will be presented a new set of recommendations for policy changes to end continuing injustices against what today is the largest ethnic population in San Antonio and so many other cities across the Southwest.

Visit our website at www.50YearsLater.org, and register to attend. We want to hear your voices.

J. Richard Avena of San Antonio is a former Southwest regional director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

AP RADIO
Update hourly