Hernandez V Texas Essay Contest

Supreme Court Decision delivered by Chief Justice Earl Warren.

May 3 marked the 60th anniversary of a little known case of American civil rights:  Hernández v. Texas.  As this year marks the 50th anniversary of the American Civil Rights Act of 1964, I figured I would pay tribute to this case and further promote awareness of it.

When we think of the American Civil Rights Act, we think of President Kennedy, President Johnson, and, certainly, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., among others. While it cannot be disputed that this was a significant group, to narrow the focus along a racial binary exacts its own marginalization on another people and their history—after all, theirs too is part of the collective American history.   Another class of people made a significant contribution to and were a driving force behind the instrument that celebrates an opulent half century.

As in the past my contribution to this blog has given a voice to subjects of Hispanic legal heritage, today I would like to highlight a few of those (unsung) Hispanic pioneers who also contributed to American civil rights or whose feats warrant mention in the annals of our history.  I am speaking of Dr. Héctor García, Carlos Cadena, César Chávez, Felix Tijerina, GusGarcía, James DeAnda, Cris Aldrete, Felix Z. Longoria, and  John J. Herrera, among many others.  These figures may be of Southwestern provenance; but the history of this country, even if complex, is only complete when all the peoples of this country are included within its chronology.

Among the aforementioned are the lawyers who successfully navigated the racially tense waters that engulfed the Hernández v. Texas case.  As the merits of this case are many, I would encourage readers to do further exploration.  A good start is PBS’s American Experience series, as it covers the case of Hernández v. Texas in an episode titled “A Class Apart.”  An indispensable source of information is Michael A. Olivas, William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law and Director of the Institute for Higher Education, Law, and Governance at the University of Houston Law Center. He is the author of Colored Men and Hombres Aquí:  Hernández v. Texas and the Emergence of Mexican American Lawyering.

Other texts that touch on the subject, include the following:

  • Allsup, Vernon Carl.  The American G.I. Forum:  Origins and Evolution.  Austin:  Center for Mexican American Studies, the University of Texas—Distributed by the University of Texas Press, 1982.
  • Katzew, Ilona and Susan Deans-Smith, eds.  Race and Classification:  The Case of Mexican America.  Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 2009.
  • Mexican Americans and the Administration of Justice in the Southwest.  Washington, D.C.:  GPO, United States Commission of Civil Rights, 1970.
  • Wilson, Steven Harmon.  Still ‘White’ After All These Years:  Mexican Americans and the Politics of Racial Classification in the Federal Judicial Bureaucracy, Twenty-Five Years After Hernández v. Texas.  Houston:  University of Houston Law Center.
  • Soltero, Carlos R. Latinos and American Law:  Landmark Supreme Court Cases.  Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006.

On May 3, 1954,the Supreme Court issued its decision on Hernández v. Texas (347 U.S. 475 [1954]) and ruled unanimously that as the petitioner’s “only claim is the right to be indicted and tried by juries from which all members of his class are not systematically excluded—juries selected from among all qualified persons regardless of national origin or descent.  To this much, he is entitled by the Constitution.”  In a nutshell, this case secured that all racial groups in the United States have equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Library of Congress-Hispanic Cultural Society, an employee organization, in association with the Office of Opportunity, Inclusiveness and Compliance, held a commemorative event on Thursday, May 1 to pay tribute to this landmark case of American civil rights—Hernández v. Texas:  American Civil Rights—Then & Now.  Featured presenters included the Honorable Hilda G. Tagle, Senior Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas and Ms. Verónica Villalobos, Director, Office of Diversity and inclusion with the Office of Personnel Management.  Judge Tagle provided the highlights of the merits of the case, while also delivering a snapshot of the historical temperament and other issues that affected the case.  Ms. Villalobos spoke on the notion of civil rights within a contemporary context.

The event came with an additional and unexpected surprise:  among the audience was a young lady named Hannah Katz.  She is the granddaughter of the late Judge Carlos Cadena, who was one of the talented attorneys who successfully appealed the Hernández case.  It was a great night for celebrating the feats of these pioneers of American civil rights—who happen to be of Hispanic ancestry—and what they did to secure for us all a more perfect justice.

Happy Cinco de Mayo, everyone!

Hispanics – The Forgotten Class in Civil Rights History

Whenever civil rights has been covered in history class, or when I’ve seen a documentary or have read an article concerning such, I am always very aware of what is missing, and it is something that I am interested in and looking for. When the Johnson Administration ushered in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through congress, it was seen as (and indeed is) a piece of legislation that forever changed the condition and race relations between Americans of black and white descent. But where every item of research cites Brown v. Board of Education overturning the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 in allowing for the integration of schools, the plights of Rosa Parks, the Greensboro Four, and the Freedom Rides in pushing the movement through non-violent protests, the tragedies of the murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and culminates in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as an American of Hispanic descent, I never see any information related to my ethnicity’s cause for civil rights. Where is the plight of Hispanics represented in the civil rights discussion and history of the United States?

In my household, I have heard the stories from older relatives about the treatment of Mexican-Americans in Texas in the 1900’s.  From what has been relayed to me, it was not much different than how Black Americans were treated in Mississippi. Through my parents, I have heard of schools for Mexican children, separate drinking fountains, having to sit in the “black” balconies at movies, and not being able to go to restaurants and other establishments that were designated as white only. But the public record of what the conditions were for the people of my background is severely lacking. It is like we did not exist in this country between the Alamo in 1836 and the introduction of Freddie Prinze to the world in “Chico and the Man” in 1974.

When discussing civil rights milestones, where are the discussions about Mendez, et. al. v. Westminster School District of Orange County, et. al.?  This 1946 case challenged the racial segregation that was occurring in Orange County schools against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. This landmark piece of legislation was instrumental in repealing many of the segregationist provisions in California law, but is not presented at all in the canon of Civil Rights legislative milestones. In fact, as a Hispanic, I had not heard of this until President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sylvia Mendez, the daughter of the lead plaintiff of the lawsuit, on February 15, 2011, and I searched for who she was and why she was being honored.

When discussing civil rights milestones, where are the discussions about Hernandez v.Texas? This 1954 landmark case established that the protection granted by the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution was not only for White and Black Americans, but that all racial groups required equal protection. This case questioned the use of Jim Crow laws against other classes of Americans, and determined that Americans of Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, Inuit, Native American, and other non-white or black descent should also be treated equally.

Along with the discussions of the Freedom Riders and Freedom Marches, where are the discussions of the 1938 Pecan Shellers Strike and the wrongful arrest and imprisonment of over 700 Mexican-Americans peacefully protesting a cut in wages and walking off the job in San Antonio, Texas? This action was seen as impacting the creation of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which defines many of the occupational rules that govern workers’ rights. Should Emma Tenayuca’s name be at least presented alongside other civil and women’s rights activists when the conditions that lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are presented?

Considering people of Hispanic descent make up over 16% of the total population of the United States today, efforts should be made to shine a light on the history, conditions, people, and effects of Latino activists and legislation. It’s time to give a large portion of the population its due, so that maybe when educational resources are developed into lesson plans, Hispanics have an element of pride and purpose in knowing that our predecessors also played a role in shaping the world and civil rights that we enjoy today. 

Mendez, et al v. Westminister School District of Orange County, et al, 64 F.Supp. 544 (S.D. Cal. 1946), aff'd, 161 F.2d 774 (9th Cir. 1947)
Hernandez v. Texas, 347 U.S. 475 (1954)

by Nicholas D. Dauphine

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