May 16, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Hernandez v. Texas: A 1954 landmark case helped Mexican Americans

Illustration of a gavel knocking down a line of columns

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Days before the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, another landmark Supreme Court decision granted Mexican Americans in Texas the right to serve on a jury — and opened doors to more civil rights battles.

Why it matters: The Hernandez v. Texas ruling in May 1954 affirmed that Mexican Americans were protected under the 14th Amendment and couldn't be excluded from jury duty under Jim Crow laws and practices in Texas.

Zoom in: The case involved murder, death threats against attorneys, lawyers forced to use segregated restrooms, and Gus Garcia, the case's star attorney, getting drunk the night before Supreme Court oral arguments.

Flashback: Garcia of San Antonio and John J. Herrera of Houston sought to use an alleged murder in Jackson County, Texas, in 1951 as a test case to challenge racist jury policies in Texas.

  • They represented Peter Hernandez, a Mexican American cotton picker accused of fatally shooting another man.
  • Jackson County labeled Mexican Americans as white, and its leaders argued that having an all-white, non-Hispanic jury wasn't discrimination.

Between the lines: During a hearing in the murder trial, a judge asked Garcia and Herrera if they would need an interpreter.

  • "No, sir, judge...If you can't understand English or Spanish, perhaps one of my colleagues can interpret for you," Garcia shot back.
  • Still, Garcia and Herrera failed to get Mexican Americans on the jury.
  • The lawyers were also forced to use a restroom outside the courtroom with a sign that said "Hombres Aqui" — a term that became a rallying cry.
  • The all-white jury sentenced Hernandez to life in prison.

But the case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court with the help of returning Mexican American World War II veterans, who urged Texas Latinos to donate what they could to fund the effort.

Yes, but: The night before oral arguments, Garcia, who was battling alcoholism and mental health challenges, slipped away and drank heavily.

  • Reporter Sarah McClendon described the hungover Garcia at arguments sitting quietly like a "sad-faced bullfighter" while fellow attorney Carlos Cadena argued the case.
  • It wasn't until Justice Felix Frankfurter called Mexican Americans "greasers" that Garcia demanded to take over arguments.
  • He wowed justices with the history of Mexican Americans.
  • Chief Justice Earl Warren was so impressed by Garcia that he allowed him to continue his oral arguments beyond the allotted time.

On May 3, 1954, the court unanimously ruled that the 14th Amendment protects those beyond the members of the "two class theory" and that Mexican Americans were a "special class," even though they were "white."

  • "The exclusion of otherwise eligible persons from jury service solely because of their ancestry or national origin is discrimination prohibited by the Fourteenth Amendment," Warren wrote.
  • Hernandez was later retried and sentenced to 20 years.

The big picture: If Garcia and his fellow attorneys lost, it would have caused substantial negative ramifications for Latinos fighting discrimination, Ramiro Contreras, an independent historian in Houston, tells Axios.

  • Garcia and Herrera built the foundation for future civil rights battles such as housing discrimination and voting rights.
  • Lisa Ramos, an associate history professor at San Antonio College, tells Axios the case isn't as remembered much today, possibly because it involves a murder and there's a sense of shame.
  • "Usually, when we want heroes, we want them not as tainted."

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