On October 14, 1964, the Nobel Committee in Norway awarded Dr. Mar- tin Luther King the Nobel Peace Prize. At age 35, Dr. King was the youngest person to receive such prestigious recognition. Through- out his career as a civil rights leader, Dr. King credited Mahatma Gandhi of India with influenc- ing his civil rights move- ment. Gandhi successfully led non-violent protest movements against British colonialism in India. Gandhi’s courage and spir- it inspired Dr. King to lead the protests against segre- gation in public transporta- tion in the 1955 Montgom- ery Bus Boycott. Dr. King also organized the largest civil rights demonstration ever with the March on Washington D.C. in 1963. The protests and marches helped bring about such landmark legislation as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1964. In the 1963 March on Washington Dr. King stood before 250,000 civil rights marchers on the Washington Mall and de- livered one of America’s greatest speeches. His “I have a dream” speech did not mention the pos- sible election one day of an African Ameri- can to the highest office in the land, the United States presidency. No one can blame him for not dreaming what seemed at the time an impossible po- litical miracle–elect- ing the first African American president.
One of Dr. King’s greatest legacies is the election of Presi- dent Barack Obama whose victory would not have been possible without the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1964. President Obama won a second term and is now considered one of the best presidents ever by U.S. historians. Paramount to Dr. King’s teaching was the notion of inclusion of all people in the fabric of Ameri- can society. In accept- ing the Nobel Peace Prize he noted that this was not a per- sonal honor, “but a tribute to the disciplined, wise restraint and majestic courage of gallant Negro and white persons of good- will who have followed a nonviolent course in seek- ing to establish a reign of justice and a rule of love across this nation of ours (New York Times, October 15, 1964). He understood that America could not be a great country if it denied any group of people basic rights and equal justice. The denial of equal rights was most prevalent in the southern states, and Texas had its share of laws and traditions which denied African Americans and Mexican Americans full citizenship status. In every Texas city and town, Af- rican Americans attended segregated schools and churches. In San Antonio, African Americans paid taxes to maintain parks and pools but were al- lowed entry only one day a week. African Americans experienced discrimination in restaurants and movie theaters paying full price to sit in segregated sections. In the 1950s and 1960s, Dr. King led a civil rights movement that spread from the deep south to all parts of America. There were some significant le- gal victories as in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education, however, the courts were not always helpful and desegregation moved at a very slow pace. Dr. King believed that protests and boycotts were more effective strategies to challenge inequality insociety and more could be achieved than resorting to violence or simply waiting for the legal system to act on their behalf. The peaceful demonstra- tion strategies developed by Dr. King changed how blacks would seek equal justice at mid-century. Mexican Americans in Texas made modest equal rights gains through the legal system during these difficult years.
In San Antonio legal challenges to discriminatory laws dated back several decades before Dr. King began his crusade. In 1954, Carlos Cadena teamed up with local attorney Gus Garcia in defending Pete Her- nandez’s right to have a jury trial of his peers. Hernandez, a farmwork- er, had been convicted of murder by an all-white jury. Cadena and Garcia appealed the decision on the basis that Mexican Americans had been ex- cluded from jury selection. The State of Texas argued that Mexicans Americans were legally white and that as white citizens, they had not been excluded from jury selection. Cadena and Garcia countered with the argument that yes, Mexican Americans were white, but historically they had been treated as a “class apart” as evident in the local signs at restaurants and other public places proclaiming “No Mexicans” allowed. The Hernandez case went to the United States Su- preme Court with Ca- dena and Garcia argu- ing the case successfully. The Supreme Court and Chief Justice Earl Warren agreed that there had been a systematic exclusion of Mexican Americans on juries in Texas for de- cades. The victory was a first for the Mexican American community in the nation ’s highest court.
The walls of segregation were slowly crumbling. Desegregation in the Al- amo City peaked with a successful sit-in in 1960 by African American activ- ists at a downtown lunch counter. Madalyn Mendoza, writ- ing in the book San Anto- nio: Our Story, discussed the initial steps in 1960 to protest segregated lunch counters at several San Antonio stores. Mendoza noted that Mary Andrews, a college freshman at Our Lady of the Lake Col- lege, led the desegrega- tion effort by writing to six stores in March 1960 requesting desegrega- tion of their eating areas. On March 16,1960 Black students from the near- by colleges entered the Woolworth downtown de- partment store and sat at the lunch counters which had long been segregated. Blacks were allowed to shop at the stores, but not to eat at the lunch counters. Carlos Cadena, a long time champion of civil rights in Texas, served as the City Attorney for San Antonio and instructed the police chief not to ar- rest students engaged in peaceful demonstrations. The next day, on March 17, 1960, all six major department stores opened their lunch counters to Blacks. In doing so, San Antonio became the first city in the South to integrate its eating establish- ments peacefully. As a city official, Cadena contributed to making San An- tonio a model for resolving segrega- tion, a first for any city in the South. Dr. King is remem- bered each year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day which was declared a U.S. federal holiday in 1986. Over the last few years, orga- nizers for the cel- ebration of the San Antonio Dr. King holiday have esti- mated that as many as 300,000 San An- tonio residents participate in the MLK march, making it the largest celebration in the nation. It is a celebra- tion that includes sizeable participation of Latinos. This year the MLK March will take place on January 21. Everyone is welcomed to join in the march to help celebrate Dr. King’s dream of full equality and justice for all Americans.