If you were a Mexican-American with a cavity in 1950s Texas, you hoped the dentist had a chair for Mexicans. Otherwise, you’d either have to suffer through it or travel to a town that did.
After Reconstruction, non-whites were relegated to separate and unequal facilities. African-Americans were the target of discrimination in every facet of life. But discrimination also extended to Mexican-Americans south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
It was in this context that President Lyndon B. Johnson ultimately took up the fight for civil rights. Johnson’s first job out of college was as a teacher at a Mexican School in Cotulla, Texas, one of the many segregated schools throughout the Southwest. His experience in Cotulla with the scourge of discrimination was personal, profoundly shaping his policy outlook and agenda as president.
“They knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them. But they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes … Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child … It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country. But now I do have that chance – and I’ll let you in on a secret – I mean to use it.”
This week, the LBJ Presidential Library commemorates the 50th anniversary of President Johnson signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act. President Obama along with four past presidents and a host of civil rights leaders will come together to celebrate one of the most important moments in our history as a nation.
It was not until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that African-Americans, Latinos and other disadvantaged groups gained the rights afforded to them by our Constitution.
The most immediate effect of the Civil Rights Act was the disappearance of segregated facilities. No longer could establishments serve “whites only,” or require blacks and Mexican-Americans to use separate bathrooms from whites.
The Civil Rights Act also allowed for the political incorporation of minorities. Because of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, minorities gained a political voice at the ballot box and as elected officials.
For example, prior to 1965, black turnout in Mississippi was less than 5%; today it is upwards of 80%. In 1963, only two Latinos served in Congress; today a record 31 Latinos serve.
The 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act is a time for celebration. Yet it is also a time for reflection. Old civil rights challenges have taken new forms, while completely new obstacles have arisen. And Latinos – now the largest minority group in the country – are at the intersection of those old and new challenges. (more…)