American G.I. Forum Address Will Provide Insight on Life of Civil Rights LeaderMay 29, 2009
A presentation on the life of one of the nation's great civil rights leaders will be hosted by Baylor University as part of the 61st Annual State Conference of the American G.I. Forum.
Dr. Thomas Kreneck, associate director for special collections and archives at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, will present "The Dr. Hector P. Garcia Story" at 3:30 p.m., Friday, June 5, in the Hankamer School of Business' Kayser Auditorium in the Cashion Academic Center.
The event is free and open to the public.
Garcia founded the American G.I. Forum in 1948 initially to improve veteran benefits and enhance medical attention. But it soon expanded to address educational and vocational training, housing, public education, poll taxation, voter registration, hospitalization and employment. Today the American G.I. Forum has nearly 160,000 members in more than 500 chapters across the U.S.
At the time of his death in 1996, Garcia's papers were conveyed to Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, and the collection is considered a centerpiece of the holdings of the university's Mary and Jeff Bell Library. Garcia's papers contain his voluminous archives dealing with the American G.I. Forum and cover the major issues faced by Mexican Americans during his career as a champion of civil rights, Kreneck said.
"Garcia's papers comprise one of the most valuable resources in existence on the Mexican-American experience during the last half of the 20th century," Kreneck said. "By his death in 1996, he was the elder statesman of Hispanic civil rights in this country."
Following the lecture, Baylor will host a reception for American G.I. Forum conference participants along with a tour of the Baylor campus. The events at Baylor are part of the three-day state conference that also will feature presentations by Edwin A. "Buddy" Grantham, director of the Office of Veterans' Affairs for the City of Houston; Texas Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio; and a "Vets and Friends Salute" to Texas Rep. Chet Edwards for his work as chairman of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee in the Texas Legislature.
About Dr. Hector P. Garcia
A descendant of Spanish land grantees, Garcia was born in the city of Llera, Tamaulipas, Mexico. His family fled the violence of the Mexican Revolution in 1917, legally immigrating to Mercedes, Texas. His parents instilled a love and respect for education in all of their 10 children, six of whom become medical doctors.
In 1929, Garcia joined the Citizens Military Training Corps, a peacetime branch of the United States Army. He graduated from high school in 1932, and in the same year earned a commission from the CMTC with a rank equivalent to a second lieutenant in the U.S. infantry. He began attending Edinburg Junior College, and later entered the University of Texas at Austin, graduating with a degree in zoology among the top ten of his class. He went on to study at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, earning his medical degree in 1940. He completed his medical residency program at St. Joseph's Hospital at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.
Upon completing his residency in 1942, Garcia volunteered for combat in the army, where he was placed in command of a company of infantry. Later, he commanded a company of combat engineers before being transferred to the medical corps. He was stationed in Europe, where he rose to the rank of major and earned the Bronze Star and six battle stars. While in Italy, he met and fell in love with Wanda Fusillo of Naples. The couple married in 1945 and had four children.
In 1946, with the war over, Garcia returned to South Texas, settling in Corpus Christi, where the League of United Latin American Citizens had been formed to defend the rights of Hispanic Americans seven years earlier. He opened a private medical practice with his brother Jose, where he treated all patients regardless of their ability to pay. In 1947, he was elected president of the local chapter of LULAC. In the same year he was hospitalized with life-threatening acute nephritis. While recuperating, he heard the local superintendent of schools bragging about the segregation in his district. At that moment, he made a private oath that if he recovered he would dedicate his life to the equality of his people.
After being discharged from the hospital, he began helping other Mexican American veterans file claims with the Veterans Administration. On March 26, 1948, he called a meeting to address the concerns of Mexican American veterans. This meeting developed into the American G.I. Forum, which soon had chapters in 40 Texas cities and became the primary vehicle by which Mexican American veterans asserted their right to equality and expressed their discontent with that period's discriminatory policies against them. The name was chosen to emphasize the fact that the Forum's participants were American citizens entitled to their Constitutional rights.
The burial of a veteran killed in action helped launch the Forum as a full civil rights organization. In 1945, a Japanese sniper killed Mexican American Pvt. Felix Longoria in the Philippines. His body was returned to Texas in 1949, where his widow's request of the use of the funeral chapel in Three Rivers was denied, the funeral director claiming that "the whites won't like it." Garcia and the American G.I. Forum intervened, petitioning then-senator Lyndon B. Johnson for redress. Johnson secured the hero's burial in Arlington National Cemetery, making Longoria the first Mexican American to be awarded the honor. The issue garnered national attention after being published in the New York Times, and propelled the G.I. Forum to the forefront of the movement for civil rights.
The American G.I. Forum became a recognized voice for Mexican Americans in the post-World War II era. Besides providing veterans a social and political network, the forum also raised funds to pay the then-required poll taxes of the indigent and campaigned against the Bracero Program, infamous for exploiting migrant laborers. Garcia testified before the National Advisory Committee on Farm Labor, asserting that "The migrant problem is not only a national emergency, it has become a national shame on the American conscience." In 1953, the G.I. Forum published its own study on farm labor in South Texas, as well as having Lyndon Johnson speak at their statewide convention.
In 1954, attorneys funded by the G.I. Forum and LULAC argued and won Hernandez v. Texas in the Supreme Court of the United States. The decision, one of the Warren court's first, threw out the plaintiff's murder conviction on the grounds that he had not had a jury of his peers. Court records showed that no one with a Spanish surname had served on a jury in the county where the original trial was held for 25 years. The desegregating decision in Brown v. the Board of Education was handed down the next year, with its extension to integrated education for Mexican American citizens being pursued by LULAC and the G.I. Forum in the Texas Supreme Court cases against several South Texas school districts.
In 1960, Garcia became national coordinator of the Viva Kennedy clubs organized to elect John Kennedy president. He is credited with delivering 85 percent of the Hispanic vote to the Democratic party in that close election. The civil rights agenda of the Forum, however, was not at the forefront of the Kennedy administration's platform, and Garcia and his supporters were forced to content themselves with his perfunctory appointment as representative of the United States in mutual defense treaty talks with the Federation of West Indies Islands in 1962. The talks were successful, and the appointment was notable as the first instance that a Mexican American had represented an American president.
In 1966, through the efforts of the Forum and other groups, the Texas poll tax was repealed. The forum also undertook a march on the Texas state capital to protest the low wages of Mexican agricultural laborers. In 1967, President Johnson appointed Garcia alternate ambassador to the United Nations, tasked with the improvement of relations with Latin American nations. He made history when, on Oct. 26, he became the first United States representative to speak before the U.N. in a language other than English. Starting in 1968, Garcia and the other members of the G.I. Forum began accompanying families of fallen soldiers to the airport to collect the bodies when they returned from Vietnam. He would often eulogize the soldier, and never refused a request to speak at any funeral.
In the same year, President Johnson appointed him to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In 1972, Garcia joined a sit-in protest of the de facto segregation in the Corpus Christi school district and was arrested with other protesters. He consulted with President Jimmy Carter several times during the 1970s. In 1987, he became involved in the struggle against the campaign to name English the official language of the United States. His final project was to improve the standard of living in the colonias in the Rio Grande Valley along the United States-Mexico border.
As one of the early pioneers of Hispanic civil rights, Garcia's activities foreshadowed much of the struggle of the Chicano Movement. His life's work has had an impact at all levels of society, from the poor barrios that he fought to improve, to the highest echelons of government. His work affected popular culture as well. In 1950, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Edna Ferber interviewed Garcia to get a sense of the Mexican American experience in Texas for her 1952 novel Giant, basing some of the incidents in the work on her interview. The book was later turned into a 1956 film starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and Dennis Hopper.
Garcia was awarded the Distinguished Service Award from the National Office of Civil Rights in 1980 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984. In 1988, the main branch of the Corpus Christi post office was renamed in his honor. In 1996, a nine-foot statue of him was dedicated at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi campus, and in 1999, his image was placed on the U.S. Treasury's $75 I Bond series honoring great Americans. Today, the Hector P. Garcia Middle School educates more than 800 students in grades 6-8 in Dallas, and Garcia's commitment to education as the foundation of American democracy lives on in the American G.I. Forum motto: "Education is our freedom, and freedom should be everybody's business."