I remember that day in 1955 as if it were playing out again in real time. It was hot and windy, as usual in south Texasthe suns intense brightness forced us to hold our hands above our eyes as if we were saluting the tall lanky Anglo man that had arrived on our street in a big fancy car. A small crowd of adults and children ran towards the car and when the man stepped out, some yelled, Es El Senator Johnson!
I was only nine years old and hadnt a clue who El Senator Johnson was, but I knew he had to be important to be visiting our neighbor, who was the person to see on voting day in our barrio. Lyndon B. Johnson wasnt just any senator, he was the powerful Majority Leader of the Senate and well liked among Mexican-Americans in Texas.
LBJ witnesses discrimination first-hand
Lyndon Johnsons first direct encounter with Mexican-Americans occurred in 1928, when he taught at the segregated Welhausen School in Cotulla, Texas — located approximately 90 miles south of San Antonio. Even though he taught at the school for only nine months, Johnson came away from that experience a changed man. He had gained a new sense and a deeper understanding about the terrible adverse impact upon society and human decency in general, of social injustice.
In 1966 he returned to Cotulla as President of the United States. In his remarks to the townspeople, including some of his former students who were in the audience, he commented on the necessity to stay in school and added, I had my first lessons in the high price we pay for poverty and prejudice right here.
His visit to Cotulla came two years after he had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. President Johnson not only signed a piece of legislation that would outlaw discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, but he also signed other landmark legislation associated with ending discrimination in housing and in voting. The Hispanic community back then was primarily represented by the ever growing Mexican-Americans in the southwest; it is they who a young Lyndon Johnson came to know personally, and it is they that he wanted to lead out of poverty by pursuing education legislation that would turn around their large drop out rates–which unfortunately still exist today.
Celebrating the civil rights legacy
This past week, Mark K. Updegrove, the director of the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, organized a Summit to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Even though the bills signing took place on July 2, 1964, the Summit is the beginning of many other events that will take place between now and July 2, to celebrate an important historical legislative moment but also to recognize the accomplishments of the man himself.
During the Summit, all former presidents spoke except President H.W. Bush, who is in ill health thus he sent a letter instead. Only one person of Hispanic origin had a major speaking role, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro spoke on immigration policy. There were a small number of former Johnson aides present and that was enough to bring Johnsons colorful persona alive once more. In past years, some writers have called Johnson crude, coarse, ruthless and cruel, but for those of us who remember his relentless push to pass this landmark legislation to the point of alienating his fellow southern Democrats, he is a hero in the civil rights movement and deserves his day in the sun. Often associated with the unpopular Vietnam War, Johnsons deeds within the civil rights arena have all but been ignored, but this year should change that forever.
SEE ALSO: Latino civil rights and higher education
The Civil Rights Act and Latinos
Although it was the African American community that pushed and sacrificed for the passage of the civil rights legislation, we Mexican-Americans had one voice that was determined to work with Johnson and the Black leadership. Dr. Hector P. Garcia, a physician and community activists from south Texas, preferred to work
Theirs was a special bonding that occurred in 1945 when the Anglo owner of a funeral home in Three Rivers, Texas refused to wake the remains of returning World War II Veteran, Pvt. Felix Longoria, because he said, The Whites wont like it.
Senator Johnson helped resolve the tense situation between the Mexican-American community and the Anglos in Three Rivers, by having Pvt. Longorias remains interned at Arlington Cemetery with full military honors. During his presidency, Lyndon Johnson appointed the first Mexican-Americans; Dr. Hector P. Garcia became the first Hispanic to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights while Vicente T. Ximenes of Floresville, Texas was appointed a Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He later served as Chairman of LBJs newly formed Cabinet Committee on Mexican-American Affair,s and it was these events that paved the way for more Hispanics being appointed to future presidential administrations. (Note: the first Hispanic appointed by a president was Lt. Gen. Pete Quesada who was the first administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration during the Eisenhower Administration)
President Lyndon Johnson changed America with his pen; allowing all of us that experienced prejudice and discrimination to begin to shed our feelings of despair. We, as Hispanic Americans owe much for our standing in todays society to our Black brothers and sisters who fought for the civil rights legislation but we owe an enormous amount of gratitude to the man from Stonewall, Texas who made certain that President John F. Kennedys initial civil rights legislation was passed without fear or recrimination from fellow Democrats and Republicans alike.
His civil rights legacy will live on.