The Texas-based American GI Forum played a pivotal—and still not fully understood—role in the election and administrations of presidents John F. Kennedy (1961–1963) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1963–1968), as well in state and local politics.
The Forum enjoyed unprecedented access and authority because of personal relationships, able leaders, and a national reach.
How did this dynamic organization achieve such success?
Large numbers of Mexicans entered the U.S. to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917). They augmented an existing community; some Spanish Americans in New Mexico had been here 400 years.
Discrimination was particularly intense in places like Texas, which was part of the South as well as the Southwest.
Mexican Americans served in World War II in large numbers, winning more Congressional Medals of Honor than members of any other ethnic group. For many returning veterans, discrimination could no longer be accepted as a fact of life.
Then an incident occurred that profoundly touched veterans across the country and served as the galvanizing battle cry to reenlist in a new war at home: a war to lower the barriers of discrimination to allow Mexican Americans to become full members of society.
It all started when the Army returned the body of Felix Longoria, who had fallen in the intense fighting to liberate the Philippines during World War II, to his home state of Texas for burial. The mortuary owner in Three Rivers refused to bury Longoria because he was “Mexican.”
Dr. Hector Garcia, of Corpus Christi, Texas, tried to assist the family by intervening with the mortuary proprietor, but to no avail.
Garcia then approached Senator Lyndon Johnson, who had narrowly won his seat months earlier in 1948 with the votes of Mexican Americans. Johnson agreed to help. He, too, found the mortuary owner obstinate. So he went to the White House.
President Harry Truman ordered that Longoria be given a hero’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
It was electric. Patriotism had trumped prejudice. And politics had proved to be critical to overcoming deeply ingrained bias.
Shortly thereafter, Dr. Garcia, who himself had served in World War II, launched the American GI Forum as a vehicle to advance the interests of Mexican American veterans and the larger community.
He formed a strong relationship with Senator Johnson and other key Democrats as well as Texas’ pro-Mexican American Catholic archbishop, Robert Lucy; in Texas, aligning your organization with “God and Country” positioned you to push civil rights without being attacked as a Communist.
Ed Idar became Texas state chair of the GI Forum in 1951, succeeding Garcia. In 1952, Idar traveled to New York to meet with the head of the Democratic National Committee’s Nationalities Division, establishing connections and educating East Coast leaders about the growing number of voters in Texas, California, and other states.
Idar also appealed for help in Texas’s internal political struggles. Since Texas was still a one-party state, there were two rival delegations for the 1952 Democratic Convention. The conservative slate had no Mexican Americans; the liberal slate had six (along with a number of African Americans).
Dr. Garcia, freed of the day-to-day responsibility of running the Forum in Texas, began to travel, meeting fellow veterans and establishing new chapters. He inspired countless others to take leadership roles in what became the most dynamic Mexican American organization of its time, outpacing the older Texas-based League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), which was also less political.
The Forum expanded dramatically over the next decade into every region of the nation save New England and the South. By the time Kennedy won the Democratic nomination in Los Angeles in 1960, there were Forum units in 23 states and the District of Columbia.
Here, in the order organized, is a roll call of the states:
* * *
On a personal note, I had the honor of interviewing Dr. Hector Garcia, Carlos McCormick, and Vicente Ximenes in the summer of 1984 on a journey that took me to Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
George Sotelo, my late father-in-law, organized Forum chapters in California and Nevada in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Sotelo and other Forumeers in California, most notably Los Angeles City Councilman (and later Congressman) Edward Roybal, helped found the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) in 1960.