1st President to mention Latinos in speech to Congress is only one who lived among Mexican-Americans in TexasMonday, February 4th, 2013
Loved this story by Russell Contreras, and wanted to share it since Texas is part of the great Southwest.
“I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy,” the President Lyndon Johnson began.
It was March 15, 1965, a week after the nation saw on television Alabama state troopers violently attack peaceful black marchers protesting voting rights discrimination. The bloody images shocked the nation. They also horrified Johnson, the former Senate majority leader who had been lukewarm on civil rights at best.
The violence sparked Johnson into addressing Congress about the immediate need for a new Voting Rights bill. It what would later be called the best speech of a his presidency and one that brought Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to tears.
It was also the first speech to Congress in U.S. history that mentioned Latinos and their struggle against poverty and discrimination—something Johnson saw firsthand as a young teacher in a Mexican American school. And it also brought a number Mexican-American civil rights leaders to tears.
But those historic words are often overlooked.
Johnson’s long conversion began when his father, a former state lawmaker, was hit hard financial times and his family was forced into near poverty in Johnson City, Texas. To help the family, Johnson worked in the cotton fields along side African Americans and Mexican Americans.
When it was time for Johnson to attend college, the University of Texas just wasn’t an option. It was too expensive. So, Johnson enrolled at Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos, Texas (today called Texas State). But Johnson still struggled with the tuition.
After his freshman year, a 19-year-old Johnson took a teaching job in Cotulla, a small South Texas town where the majority of students were poor and Mexican American.
But the young, idealistic Johnson was appalled by what he saw among his 5th, 6th, and 7th graders at the Welhausen School. Not only were his students dirt poor, he quickly saw how the town’s whites treated them like second-class citizens. Whites encourage the Latino students to stay home and become laborers like their parents. Other whites educators complained that the students did nothing but carry dirt, lice and disease.
“I am not going to stand here and tell you that they are the best people on the face of the earth,” one congressman said of Mexican Americans at the time Johnson was in Cotulla.
They treated Mexicans “just worse than you’d treat a dog,” Johnson would say later in life. Her remembered “the Mexican children going through a garbage pile, shaking the coffee ground from the grapefruit rinds and sucking the rinds for the juice that was left.”
But an energetic Johnson decided that he could still convert his students into believers of the American Dream. He organized athletic teams, pushed literary clubs and repeatedly told them all they could all reach high school, a rarity for Mexican Americans at the time.
When he got his first paycheck, he didn’t spend it on himself. He bought playground equipment.
Johnson told one student, Felipe Gonzalez, that one day he would be an attorney. Meanwhile, he tutored English to the school janitor.
“He used to tell us that this country was so free that anyone could become President who was willing to work hard enough,” his former student Dan Garcia recalled.
But deep down, Johnson knew his students had a difficult road ahead. In nearby towns, the Ku Klux Klan ruled by terror. In addition, segregation prevented Mexican Americans from good schools, college and everyday life.
Johnson later become a congressional aid, a congressman himself and later a U.S. senator. On his road to become the country’s most powerful Senate majority leader in its history, however, Johnson sought to appease Southern segregationists with speeches and his actions. He quietly helped a family of Mexican American soldier Felix Longoria, who was killed in action in WWII but refused burial service by a white-owner funeral home, get a spot in Arlington National Cemetery
As President Obama prepares next week to address Congress and to urge lawmakers to pass comprehensive immigration reform, it’s important to remember that whatever he says, it was Johnson who spoke from the soul, even when he knew it would hurt him politically later. But for Johnson it didn’t matter in 1965. That’s because 1928 and those students were with him, and always would be.