As Reies López Tijerina stepped to the podium in a small but ornate room at Chicago’s Palmer House hotel, the charismatic Chicano leader exuded both a supreme confidence and a genuine urgency about the state of his people in the fall of 1967. “The black man is marching in the streets,” Tijerina told a mix of supporters and curious observers, emphatically waving his hands. “You think we should sit down and relax?” The landgrant rights leader from New Mexico was in town for the first and only National Conference for New Politics convention, a raucous gathering of New Left activists considering an electoral challenge to President Lyndon Johnson primarily over the Vietnam War.
Although not explicitly a war opponent, the onetime itinerant Pentecostal preacher received an invitation after gaining notoriety for his provocative and unorthodox activism. For the previous four years, Tijerina had applied his penchant for rich rhetoric and publicity to the cause of Mexican American land-grant rights long sought by the descendants of deed owners in U.S. territory that had been Mexico until 1848. For Tijerina and his tens of thousands of followers in New Mexico and throughout the Southwest, honoring the land grants under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the U.S.-Mexican War, was the primary way to alleviate the grinding poverty that many Mexican Americans faced in the United States more than a century later. The convention was a prime chance to spread the word to a new audience of potential allies, especially African Americans, with whom Tijerina believed his people had a shared goal. “The black man has his cause and we have ours,” Tijerina reminded his listeners. “It is the same cause—justice.”1
On the surface, Tijerina’s statement could be interpreted as nothing more than a hopeful but largely rhetorical declaration of multiracial solidarity—a desire to ally with people who had comparable histories of oppression in the United States. But Tijerina’s declaration actually suggested a more complicated reality, one that prompts several questions. Exactly