“we are not and never have been a civil rights organization. Personally I hate that word” (Hector Garcia, qtd. in Foley)

1949: Felix Longoria and American GI Forum

A few years after World War II ended, another Mexican American civil rights organization was founded, the American GI Forum. Significantly, the name of the organization did not include any reference to its being an organization for Mexican American war veterans. Hector García, a medical doctor who founded the American GI Forum, achieved a degree of national attention in 1949 when he challenged the Anglo owner of a funeral home near San Antonio for refusing the use of the chapel to the Mexican American family of a deceased veteran, Private Felix Longoria. Dr. García organized a statewide protest that attracted the attention of U.S. Senator Lyndon [136] Baines Johnson who offered to have Private Longoria buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., with full military honors, which the family graciously accepted. The incident established the American GI Forum as an effective civil rights advocate for Mexican Americans, even though Dr. García himself insisted, years after the Longoria incident, that the American GI Forum was not a civil rights organization but rather a “charitable organization.” As late as 1954 Dr. García claimed, “we are not and have never been a civil rights organization. Personally I hate the word.” What did Dr. García have against the phrase “civil rights”?[33]

Here it is worth noting that the phrase “civil rights” was so firmly linked in the post-World War II imaginary to the civil rights struggle of African Americans that Dr. García perhaps thought it best not to acknowledge too forcefully the American GI Forum’s own civil rights agenda. […] Robert Kennedy, like Dr. García, did not wish to alienate whites in Texas–or anywhere else–by appearing to join the struggle of black people for civil rights.[35]

By the early 1950s the American GI Forum, while still denying that it was a civil rights organization, sought to end discrimination in Texas schools, in employment, and in the use of public spaces. The core strategy depended on educating Anglos that “Americans of Spanish-speaking descent” or Latin Americans were Caucasians and that to identify them as anything but white, whether on birth certificates or traffic citations, was illegal. Making any distinction between Latin Americans and whites, he wrote, was a “slur,” an insult to all Latin Americans of Spanish descent.[36]

A decade later, Vice President Hubert Humphrey made the mistake of writing the American GI Forum to announce the government’s new program to offer summer jobs to teenagers, especially, he wrote, for “the non-white teenagers.” The AGIF Auxiliary chairwoman, Mrs. Dominga Coronado, rebuked the vice president: “If everyone in the government takes the position emphasized in your letter ([that Mexicans are] nonwhite), then it is understandable why the Mexican American is getting ‘the leftovers’ of the Federal programs in employment, housing and education.”[37] White people, she seemed to imply, do not eat leftovers.

Neil Foley, "Partly Colored or Other White: Mexican Americans and Their Problem with the Color Line," in Beyond Black and White: Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in the U.S. South and Southwest, ed. Stephanie Cole and Alison M. Parker, 123-144 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 204), 135-136.

 

  1. [33]Hector García to Gerald Saldana, Mar. 13, 1954, box 141, folder 3, Hector P. García Papers, Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi, hereafter cited as HPG.
  2. [35]While not promoting the American GI Forum as a civil rights organization in 1949, García nevertheless wrote to the Texas governor that “Texas is in immediate need of a Civil Rights Program.” Hector P. García to Allan Shivers, Dec. 4, 1949, HPG.
  3. [36]Hector P. García to Editor, Lubbock Morning Avalanche, July 18, 1956, HPG.
  4. [37]Hubert Humphrey to Dominga Coronado, June 12, 1967; Dominga Coronado to Hubret Humphrey, June 26, 1967, HPG.

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