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“Our People Were Dedicated”: Organizing with the American G.I. Forum

Founded in 1948 as an advocacy group for Mexican American veterans of World War II, the American G.I. Forum evolved into one of the leading civil rights organizations of the postwar era. Led by a medical doctor from Corpus Christi, Texas, Dr. Hector P. Garcia (1914–1996), the group attained national recognition in 1949 when they organized protests against a funeral home that would not allow chapel services for a Mexican American soldier, Felix Longoria, who was killed in combat four years earlier in the Philippines. With the intervention of Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, Longoria was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Patriotic in intent and constituted of locally-run units, the Forum sought to work from the “bottom up” to involve ordinary citizens in public life and to put an end to discriminatory practices that affected veterans and their families. Working in the communities and the courts, the Forum led poll tax drives and campaigned against segregated schools, for adequate health care, and to improve the lot of migrant workers. In 1958, the Forum became a national organization. With an earlier civil rights group that also originated in Texas, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Forum campaigned in 1960 in Viva Kennedy clubs, contributing to the future president’s narrow victory in Texas that helped win the national election. Forum members worked with the Johnson administration to implement Great Society programs in Mexican American communities, and in 1967, Vicente Ximenes, a former national chairman, became the head of the Inter-Agency Cabinet Committee on Mexican American Affairs and EEOC commissioner. In the following interview, Ed Idar, a long-time colleague of Dr. Garcia, related the dedicated efforts of group leaders to organize throughout the state.

Listen to Audio:

IDAR: We had people that were seriously committed. We used to have board meetings in different parts of the state. We had a board meeting in Lubbock one time. And we had a member of the board, Trinidad Gonzales, from Edinburg, in the Valley. Trini got in his car and he drove by himself from Edinburg, in the Valley, all the way to Lubbock which was probably 600 miles or so, round trip. The only thing he got for his trouble was, I would refund them their expenses, but they had to give me a copy of their hotel bill. And they had to keep their gas receipts. And that was the only thing they ever got refunded.

Those people were dedicated. Our people were dedicated. They believed in what they were doing and they were not expecting a salary. They were not expecting foundation money or anything. And I wasn’t either.

Dr. Garcia must have spent a fortune out of his pocket in working for the G.I. Forum. I traveled with Hector many a time. He used to take three or four guys in his car. I came back from him, from a conference in El Paso one time to South Texas. He stopped at every town—Alpine, Fort Stockton, Marathon, every little town—to make contacts, to try to organize G.I. Forum. And he would pay for the. . . we’d stop at a restaurant to pay, to have a meal. And Hector would pay for everybody. And that’s the way he used to do every trip he ever made to organize G.I. Forum. He paid out of his pocket. He would have died a wealthy man if it hadn’t been for that.

But we had people that were really dedicated. Gilbert Garcia from Fort Worth. He had a little bitty dry cleaning business. And every weekend he would leave the business in care of his wife and take off to go organize the G.I. Forum. Or talk to a group. Or what have you.

When he became state chairman, we decided to buy him a station wagon so he could travel. Because he had an old car that was always breaking down on him, you know. In no time at all, he put 100,000 miles on that doggone station wagon. He literally ran it to the ground.

And there again, he was not getting a salary. This was done because he wanted to do it. That’s the kind of people we had. That’s why we did some good. And our people knew that, they knew nobody was getting a salary.

Source: Oral History courtesy of U.S. Latinos & Latinas and World War II Oral History Project, University of Texas, Austin. Interview with Ed Idar, organizer/volunteer for the American G.I. Forum and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, December 2, 2000, in San Antonio, Texas, by Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez.