The Second World War ended in 1945 after both the Japanese Empire and Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allied Forces. Of course, many of the American service men returned to the States, but only to find that another enemy lurked on their own home front. It was the beast of racial prejudice. Well-known for its rampage against African Americans, it is lesser-known for its massive attack on Mexican Americans.
In fact, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, a turning point in American history against legal and institutionalized discrimination, is first remembered, sometimes solely and only, as a victory for Black Americans. It was a time when the nightly news broadcast the speeches of their charismatic leader, Martin Luther King, and watched as he led them, on march after march – not turning their cameras away as they endured the brutal backlash of a Southern culture built upon their backs.
These are images burnt into our brains, along with the pictures of more than a quarter million standing in Washington, D.C. to listen to a speech, in 1963, by Dr. King about his ‘dream’. Shortly after that, in 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. Nevertheless, prejudice did not fade away, and 4 years later, still leading that fight, King was constantly on the road.
In 1968, he arrived in Memphis to support a march of 1300 black sanitation workers who were protesting years of discrimination and dangerous working conditions; two workers had recently been crushed to death as city rules permitted black employees only the back of their compressor trucks, with the garbage, as shelter from the rain. Dr. King was assassinated, by a shot to the head, on the evening before that march was to begin.
For many, the Civil Rights Movement ended that day. Yes, the fight was not over but, no doubt, discrimination had been exposed. Unless you were a Mexican American.
In fact, unless you are a Mexican-American – and, maybe, only an older one at that – this July 4th story may open up, for you, an entirely new window on the era’s Civil Rights Movement.
In the 1960’s, Mexican-Americans were also suffering from discrimination. Considered as ‘white’, this was not racial discrimination, but class discrimination. As workers, their job opportunities were limited, as were their housing opportunities; as parents they struggled to find adequate schooling for their children. They tried to blend in, often forsaking their culture so as to become more American, and many urged their children to do the same. But many of these children did not want to give up their heritage, rebelled against the English-only schooling, were not resigned to a future – especially in America – of less-than-equal opportunity. It was those same children that began what became the largest student-led civil rights movement of the time.
In time, Mexican-American parents, in large number, joined the movement, as well; at first proud to have their sons fight in America’s war against the Vietnamese, they came to realize that fewer of their children were returning from the war. Assigned a lower status, it was their boys, their sons, that were sent to the front lines… and killed in disproportionate numbers.
This was not only the case in a foreign land, in a foreign war, but in their largest community here in America… Los Angeles. It was there that this Civil Rights Movement began, and the history of which was continually chronicled – almost exclusively – by the counter-culture icon of the 60’s, the Los Angeles Free Press.
At a July 4th rally, America’s Mexican citizens said that they would no longer stand for such abuse, that were ready to assert their civil rights. It was the appropriate day for them to declare their independence. It also was the initial announcement for the National Chicano Moratorium, celebrated with a march of more than 30,000. It was assaulted by the LAPD, and there, their leader, Ruben Salazar, their only voice in the mainstream media, took a shot to the head from a teargas gun. That killed him, and no one else. Some say he was assassinated; and that the Chicano Movement was, also critically wounded.
One thing is for certain: this is not the Civil Rights Movement that most often comes to mind, its size and parallels to the ‘real’ Movement are not part of the usual education but, with recent events, maybe they soon will be.
Here is a link to the actual LA Free Press article about that rally, which contained a line that foretold the future then and, today, may be telling it again – “the calm before the storm”,