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Héctor Pérez García: 1914-1996: Physician, Civil Rights Advocate

Fought For Civil Rights With Gi Forum

After his discharge from the U.S. Army in 1946, García started his medical practice in the South Texas town of Corpus Christi. He located his office near the Veterans Administration (VA) building and contracted with the VA to provide services to Mexican-American veterans. The VA paid García three dollars per patient. It quickly became apparent to García that Mexican-American veterans were not being treated fairly or equally by the VA. He heard many stories from veterans who had been denied treatment at the Naval Air Station hospital; others had been denied financial assistance for medical expenses and job training as prescribed by the GI Bill of Rights. To treat men and women who had faithfully served their country during the war as second-class citizens was unacceptable to García. In response, on March 26, 1948, he organized a meeting at Lamar Elementary School to discuss veterans' concerns. More than 700 attended the meeting. On that night, the GI Forum was founded. Elected as the organization's chairman, García began his lifelong role as activist, organizer, and community caretaker.

In 1949 García became involved with the burial of Private Felix Longoria. Longoria, a Mexican-American soldier from Three Rivers, a town near Corpus Christi, had been killed near the end of the war and interred in the Philippines. Three years later, Longoria's wife was asked if she would like to reinter her husband in Texas. Although she had since moved to Corpus Christi, Longoria's wife decided to bury her husband in his hometown of Three Rivers. Her decision set off a series of events that brought García and the GI Forum into the national spotlight. When Longoria's family was denied access to the only funeral home in Three Rivers, García stepped in to help. After hearing from the funeral home director himself that the only reason the family could not use the facilities was because Longoria was a Mexican American, García contacted the local media and then sent off a series of telegrams to everyone he could think of, including the newly elected senator to the U.S. Congress from Texas, Lyndon B. Johnson. With Johnson's intervention Longoria's remains were interred two months later in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

With the Longoria incident behind him, García began to broaden his focus beyond veterans' concerns to address the wider spectrum of social inequalities facing Mexican Americans in his Coastal Bend community, including segregated education, housing, health care, poll taxes, and employment. He traveled the country, organizing new GI Forums. In the years before the rising popularity of the Martin Luther King, García's GI Forum was the leading civil rights organization in the country. During the early 1950s, novelist Edna Ferber spent time with García, and she used him as a model for the character of the Mexican-American doctor in her 1952 novel Giant, as well as the 1956 movie version.

Joining forces with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), an older civil rights organization also founded in Corpus Christi, García and the GI Forum took on several court battles to end discriminatory practices. In 1948 García was put in charge of raising funds to cover the legal expenses of Minerva Delgado and 20 other Mexican-American families in Bastrop, Texas, who filed a lawsuit to end segregated schooling and challenge the fictitious "separate but equal" policy. Although the decision ruled against segregation, the battle to implement integration had just begun. The LULAC and the GI Forum sued the Driscoll school district in 1957 for discriminating against Mexican Americans, winning once again. In another case, Hernandez v. State of Texas, LULAC and GI Forum lawyers took the case all the way to the Supreme Court in 1954 after Peter Hernandez had been found guilty by an all-white jury and given the death penalty. After Chief Justice Earl Warren discovered that not one single Mexican American had been called to jury duty in the county in 25 years, he ruled for Hernandez and reversed the conviction.

In the 1950s García became increasingly politically active. In 1954 he was on the Advisory Council of the Democratic National Committee, and in 1960 he was appointed chairman of the Mexican-Spanish section of the Nationalities Division of the Democratic National Committee. Following John F. Kennedy's nomination for the presidency, García served as national chairman of the "Viva Kennedy" clubs, intended to get Mexican Americans to the polls to vote the Kennedy-Johnson ticket. Following the election, Kennedy named García to the American delegation that signed a treaty between the United States and the Federation of the West Indies in 1961. García was also instrumental in establishing a nationwide Hispanic organization, which resulted in the formation of the Political Association of Spanish Speaking Organizations (PASSO). García served as PASSO's first president.

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: E(mily) R. Frank (1967-) Biography - Personal to Martha Graham (1893–1991) BiographyHéctor Pérez García: 1914-1996: Physician, Civil Rights Advocate Biography - Gained Education And Army Experience, Fought For Civil Rights With Gi Forum, Generosity Mixed With Impatience