LATINO VOICES
11/11/2013 01:28 pm ET

Mexican American Civil Rights Leaders To Remember On Veterans' Day

AP

Many Americans remember veterans most for their actions overseas. But as the United States takes a day to remember those who have died serving in the Armed Forces, it’s a perfect time to highlight how veterans helped give the Mexican American civil rights movement an early push.

Felix Longoria was drafted to serve in World War II in 1944. Killed by a Japanese sniper in the Philippines in 1945, it took four years for his remains to be returned to his family in the South Texas town of Three Rivers. The only funeral home in town denied the family’s use of the chapel, saying it would enflame racial tensions between Latinos and Anglos.

longoria

Private Felix Longoria.

“Well, Mrs. Longoria,” Rice Funeral Home Director Tom Kennedy said, according to the historical study Héctor P. García: In Relentless Pursuit of Justice. “I have lots of Latin friends, but I can’t let this boy rest in the chapel because the whites won’t like it.”

The episode infuriated Dr. Hector P. Garcia, a physician, World War II veteran and budding civil rights leader. In 1948, he had helped found the American G.I. Forum -- an organization committed to addressing the unequal treatment of Mexican American veterans.

Garcia tried to convince the funeral home to relent, without success. He then led a protest that fielded 1,000 participants, launching a public campaign with Longoria’s widow, Beatrice, for equal treatment from the funeral home. The story made national headlines. Then-U.S. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, who had developed early ties to the Tejano community as a teacher in the South Texas town of Cotulla, offered a solution: he used his clout to have Longoria laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, where he was buried on Feb. 16, 1949.

The “Felix Longoria Affair,” as the episode became known, marked an early civil rights victory for the Mexican American community and helped propel García to national prominence. He and the G.I. Forum would go on to become a key voices in the Latino politics into the 1990s, playing a key role in financing the lawsuit Hernandez v. Texas, which established that Mexican Americans enjoy the constitutional right to equal protection under the 14th amendment.

What other heroes are you remembering on Veterans’ Day? Let us know in the comments.

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