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, Gus García, 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 ) 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!