In 1948, Dr. Hector P. Garcia was quarreling with the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas which refused to accept sick World War II veterans who were Latino. After this effort, Garcia founded the American G.I. Forum. While many veterans advocacy groups were already in operation, very few allowed Latinos membership, and none actively fought for Latino veterans’ rights. The 500,000 Latinos who honorably served in World War II now had a leader in Garcia, and within months of inception, the American G.I. Forum was opening branches across the nation.
Garcia today remains a central figure of the Latino civil rights movement, due to his refusal to stand idle while Mexican Americans were being dehumanized in the post-World War II society.
Garcia returned a young veteran from the fighting arena of Europe in 1946, and established a small medical practice in Corpus Christi. With Garcia at the helm, the American G.I. Forum called for the removal of poll taxes while simultaneously holding fund-raisers to help pay poll taxes to register more Mexican Americans to vote.
García organized back-to-school drives for Mexican American children. He launched case after case against Texas school systems for being illegal, and won many of his efforts. He and others instigated court cases to sue for the right of Mexican Americans to serve on juries (winning one such case in the Supreme Court). He established schools to teach veterans how to access the benefits under the new G.I. Bill, and advocated for the welfare of Mexican Americans everywhere, especially in areas of health care. While making him heroically revered among the Latino culture, these actions also made him the most hated man in Texas by discriminating parts of society.
In 1948, an incident known as "The Felix Longoria Affair" boosted the American G.I. Forum into the national spotlight. Three years after the conclusion of the war, the remains of Private Longoria, a native of Three Rivers, Texas, killed in duty during a volunteer mission in the Pacific, were being returned home for final burial. The owner of the town's sole funeral parlor would not allow a Mexican American to have chapel services there because "the Anglo people would not stand for it." Longoria's widow approached García for assistance.
The deceased Private Longoria quickly became a symbol of racism in Texas. Latinos were outraged that an American soldier, after giving the supreme sacrifice of his life to his country, was not even allowed to be buried in his hometown. The national media huddled around the story. Walter Winchell, a journalist, said on the air, "The great state of Texas, which looms so large on the map, looks mighty small tonight."
Soon after, the citizens of Three Rivers, in an attempt to defend their good name and dispel protests that racism was rampant in the town, gave a hero’s welcome to Longoria’s remains. Most of America viewed this action as too little, too late. As if this act of racism wasn’t enough, during the ordeal García's wife and daughters were denied service at a local restaurant because they were Mexicans.
Ultimately, Longoria was interred at Arlington National Cemetery with the sponsorship of U.S. Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson. The story of Longoria made him a martyr for the dignity of Mexican Americans everywhere. The story also gave the fledgling American G.I. Forum respect and national media focus. Lastly, it was the beginning of a long, powerful association between García and Johnson.
In the 1960s, García negotiated a resolution to the Chamizal dispute between the United States and Mexico. In 1968, García was ambassador to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations under President Johnson.
In 1984 President Ronald Reagan presented García with the Presidential Medal of Freedom—America’s highest civilian honor. The American G.I. Forum, now centered in Austin, Texas, remains an active veteran's organization and continues its advocacy in a medley of fields.
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