It’s time for a quick history quiz. On Jan. 11, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in one of the most important civil rights cases in our history. Name that case.
If you guessed Brown vs. Board of Education, which led to a ban on segregation in public schools, you’d be warm – but you’d be wrong.
A documentary that PBS aired on Feb. 23, “A Class Apart,” tells of the little known but historically significant case of Hernandez vs. Texas.
At stake were the rights of millions of Mexican-Americans and whether they deserved equal protection based on provisions of the 14th Amendment.
At the time, Mexican Americans were officially classified as white, despite routinely facing overt discrimination, including housing, school, employment segregation and hate crimes, including lynchings.
My own grandfather was almost hanged in south Texas for violating a local curfew.
When I was a boy in the 1950s, it was common in Texas and other regions of the Southwest to see signs outside of restaurants or public buildings that read “No Mexicans, N—— or Dogs Allowed.”
In 1952, legendary San Antonio attorney Gus Garcia, a proud veteran of World War II, decided to challenge the discriminatory system.
Garcia picked an unlikely test case: the murder conviction of a man named Pedro Hernandez.
Garcia believed Hernandez could not receive a fair trial because Mexican-Americans were barred from serving on his jury in Edna, Texas.
On appeal, the state attorney general insisted the trial was fair because Mexican-Americans were considered white and the jury that convicted Hernandez was all white – albeit exclusively so.
By the time the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Garcia, fellow litigator Carlos Cadena and a volunteer legal team they’d assembled formulated a unique argument:
Mexican-Americans, they conceded, might be white, but the established pattern of discrimination against them proved they also were “a class apart.”
The Supreme Court agreed and – on May 3, 1954, only two weeks before ruling on Brown vs. Board – the justices overturned the lower court rulings and ordered a new trial for Hernandez.
Hernandez later was convicted by a jury of his peers, one that included Mexican-Americans, but the justices’ decision had set a precedent that led to countless successful challenges of employment and housing discrimination, school segregation and voting rights barriers against Mexican-Americans.
The case literally improved the lives of millions of Latinos nationwide.
On the down side, Hernandez vs. Texas established another precedent of sorts: Most Latinos’ court challenges against injustice would have to happen without the support of philanthropic foundations, prestigious law schools and law firms, or civic-minded donors.
Hernandez vs. Texas, for its part, was largely financed by tamale and bake sales and the grassroots contributions out of pocket from poor field workers and other laborers.
Despite its enormous legal significance, Hernandez vs. Texas was not meaningfully enforced by the government or given much media exposure.
Gus Garcia, the brilliant Latino lawyer who argued the case, died on a park bench in San Antonio – broke, homeless and forgotten, until now.
In the end, Hernandez vs. Texas was about trying to bring justice to a distinct class of multiracial Americans who did not fit neatly into our traditional and rigid black/white paradigm – a people who were and still are “a class apart.”
(Watch the film at www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/class/)
Raul Yzaguirre is executive director of the Center for Community Development and Civil Rights and a presidential professor of practice at Arizona State University. He served for 30 years as head of the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest and most influential Latino advocacy organization. E-mail: raul.yzaguirre @asu.edu.