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Past And Present: A Major Landmark In The Fight For Civil Rights

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This year marks the 60th anniversary of the celebrated civil rights case, Brown v. Board of Education. However, on May 3, 1954, two weeks before the Brown ruling, the Supreme Court delivered another important decision in the American Civil Rights movement.

In Hernandez v. Texas, the court declared that the 14th Amendment’s right to equal protection extended to all racial and ethnic groups. In 1951, Texas convicted an agricultural worker named Pedro Hernandez of murdering Joe Espinosa.

In the appeal, Hernandez’s lawyer, Gus Garcia, argued that Hernandez’s 6th Amendment right to an impartial jury and his 14th Amendment right to equal protection had been violated because Texas’ jury selection system did not allow Mexican Americans to participate. Thus, Hernandez, a Mexican American, had been convicted by an all-white jury.

In 1868, the 14th Amendment had been written to secure citizenship rights for newly freed slaves. While racial segregation had limited access to these rights for African Americans, the Texas state court declared that these protections had never applied to Hernandez because the law classified him as white. Garcia argued that, while the law recognized Hernandez as white, and thus entitled him to the same rights and privileges of other white citizens, throughout the Southwest, Mexican Americans faced similar Jim Crow laws to African Americans, and, thus, required similar protections.

The US Supreme Court agreed. It ruled unanimously that Hernandez be retried by an impartial jury and declared that the 14th Amendment afforded all racial and ethnic groups in the United States the same right to equal protection.

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.