Fighting Discrimination and Hate Crimes for 45 Years

Article excerpt

Four years after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a result of nationwide prolests and lunch-counter sit-ins by African-Americans, some states maintained the status quo. Bi Texas, where Mexican-Americans have historically been the largest ethnic minority, discrimination continued in all its forms.

In 1968, fed up with overt jury discrimination, San Antonio attorney I'edro "Pete" Tijerina founded the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALOEF). His goal was to eradicate racially discriminatory jury selection in the courts. But MALDEF evolved beyond that initial desire for justice.

Tijerina knew firsthand about pervasive discrimination in the Alamo city. He had witnessed it in housing, schools, businesses and even cemeteries. The Laredo native once said he had not experienced racial prejudice until he returned from serving in the Army Air Force during World War II.

A personal injury case inspired Tijerina to start MALDEF when his client faced an all-White jury. Lire only two Mexicans named as potential jurors were purged because one was dead and the other diti not speak English. Tijerina's client, an amputee, was forced to settle out of court for a nominal amount.

Now, nearly 45 years since its inception as a nonprofit civil rights organization. MALDEF remains the leading legal voice for Latinos. Through advocacy, leadership development and litigation, MALDEF' defends the constitutional rights of Latino clients across the country.

"There's an increasing demand for the work we do because the Latino community is growing. So I predict we will continue to have a lot of work to do." said Thomas A Sáenz, a summa cum laude graduate of Yale University and Yale Law School, and MALDEF president and general counsel.

Sáenz heads a staff of 55 legal professionals from the national headquarters in Los Angeles. MALDEF continually files lawsuits challenging stale laws obstructing Latino civil rights, from its regional offices in San AatoMo, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and satellite offices in Atlanta and Sacramento.

In 1973, the murder of 1 2-year-old Santos Rodriguez by a Dallas police officer became a symbol of police brutality taken to extremes. The shooting death galvanized the Hispanic community to take to the streets in protest. Equally important, the incident confirmed the need for MALDEF to fill a legal void.

To that end, MALDEF began ils historic journey with advice and guidance from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, support from the League of United Latin American Citizens and a $2.2 million grant from die Ford Foundation.

The Ford Foundation's seed money was intended to help finance the legal careers of future Hispanic/Latino attorneys committed to advocating for social justice and civil rights of those who cannot defend themselves. Other attorneys and professionals joined the cause, bul one became a leading voice.

Mario Oblcdo, appointed Texas assistant attorney general in 1965, joined Tijerina as MALDEF's co-founder in 1968. Together they resolved to challenge decades of police brutality, voting rights ahuses and overall institutional racial discrimination toward Mexican -Americans and Mexican nationals.

Al first, the San Antonio base of operations was mired in legal aid cases. In 1972, headquarters were moved lo California. Obledo replaced Tijerina as the Grst general counsel. Under his leadership, MALDEF began addressing other issues and advocating for Latinos through friend-of-thecourt briefs.

From there, the organization evolved into a major litigation force. MALDEF began mounting legal challenges in reapportionment, public school financing, the right to a free public education, and other areas.

In 1973, MALDEF had its first victory· in the landmark White v. Regester case. Here the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with MALDEF that single-member election districts in Texas violated the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause. …