By Dr. Ricardo Romo
Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke before 250,000 demonstrators for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August of 1963, the largest protest event in American history. He awakened the nation to its constitutional obligations of fairness and justice for all. While his legacy is secure, there is less known about King’s indirect contribution to a rise in Latino awareness of injustices, discrimination, and violence against minorities of color. Here is a part of the Latino historical and legal link to King’s American dream.
During King’s generation, Texas, and all the Southern States, successfully kept Whites and Black separated through Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow was a catch-all term to describe laws and regulations which denied Black children the right to attend the same schools as Whites, prevented Blacks from drinking from the same public water foundations, trying on clothes in department stores, sitting at a lunch counter, or drinking from a White restaurant glass. In addition, Jim Crow laws or the racist culture they created kept Blacks out of most jobs and neighborhoods.
I witnessed the social injustice of segregation as well as the slow transition to greater social inclusion. While some Texas school districts chose to integrate their classes, many schools remained wholly segregated. I attended an integrated high school, Fox Tech, during the 1960s and prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I witnessed the segregation policies that required my high school classmates to enter the Majestic or Aztec theaters through a back door located in the adjacent alley. If they rode on the bus, they had to sit in the back seats.
On one occasion, after a track meet, six of the Fox Tech track team rode together and stopped at the popular Pig Stand on Broadway for soda drinks. The car hop told us that our sprinter, Herple Ellis, would have to drink from a paper cup since they reserved the standard drinking glasses for Whites. One of our Latino track buddies quickly responded, “bring us all paper cups”. We were caught off guard since at our high school, which was 99% Latino, we all drank from the same water foundation, ate together, rode the buses together, and used the same towels and sports wear.
It was this type of discrminaiton that King fiercely challenged. His civil rights activism began with the arrest of Rosa Parks in 1955 for refusing to move to the back of public bus to allow Whites to sit in the front seats. King’s leadership in the Montgomery bus boycott made him a national Black hero.
King’s electrifying “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963 propelled him to major leadership in the civil rights movement. He was instrumental in influencing President Lyndon Johnson to sign the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act which banned discriminatiuon in public facilities and included private companies such as hotels, movie theaters, and lunch counters. The law also prohibited employment discrimnaiton based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
In 1968 a small group of dedicated Mexican American attorneys met in San Antonio for the purpose of launching a Latino civil rights organization. They formed the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund [MALDEF] and selected San Antonian Pete Tijerina as director and Mario Obledo as general counsel.
Within months they had their first case, defending 192 Latino students who had been expelled by Edcouch Elsa
High School in Hidalgo County, Texas for boycotting classes with claims of educational abuse. A South Texas judge agreed that the expulsions had violated the students’ constitutional right to protest. It was MALDEF’s first court victory.
In 1973, another San Antonian, Vilma Martinez, was hired as the advocacy organization’s general counsel and president. Martinez grew up in the eastside of San Antonio, an area with mostly Black and some Latino families. She attended Jefferson High School, University of Texas at Austin, and Columbia Law School. Martinez is one of the first Mexican Americans to graduate from the prestigious law school at Columbia. One of her first tasks as head of MALDEF was helping to secure an extension of the Voting Rights Act to include Mexican Americans among the groups protected.
Martínez also helped obtain a 1974 ruling guaranteeing that non-English-speaking children in public schools could obtain bilingual education. Under Martinez, MALDEF secured an important educational victory–
the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1982 ruling in Plyler v. Doe that guarantees every child in America a free K-12 public school education, regardless of immigration status.
The civil rights victories of the period 1965-1975 gave Americans of color greater protected rights by ending unconstitutional laws that allowed communities to treat Black and Latinos as second-class citizens. Latinos learned from King that they would have to remain vigilant in protecting their voting rights which once again today are vulnerable to political gerrymandering. While the “Dream” lives on, the struggles for inclusion, fairness, and justice are far from over.