Pvt. Felix Longoria was killed in action in the Philippines during World War II. Back in Texas, his hometown church refused to host his funeral because he was Mexican.
Longoria was killed 15 days after landing in Luzon on June 15, 1945, while flushing out retreating Japanese soldiers. It would be several years before the 25-year-old's remains were found, identified, and sent home at which point Longoria's widow was eager to properly recognize her husband's death.
But the funeral director in Longoria's hometown of Three Rivers, Texas said the church would not hold a wake for someone of Mexican descent. Longoria's family would have to settle for burial in the segregated "Mexican" cemetery, separated by barbed wire.
Longoria's widow knew who to contact for help.
In 1948, the GI Forum, a Hispanic veterans and civil rights organization was just getting off the ground, led by founder and veteran Dr. Hector P. Garcia. But Garcia already had a reputation for effective advocacy on behalf of Hispanic Americans.
Garcia contacted the funeral director who again denied the request saying no Mexican-American had ever used the chapel -- it might offend the whites.
Garcia then sent 17 telegrams to congressmen, senators, a governor, and the media sharing Longoria's story.
"The denial was a direct contradiction of those same principles for which this American soldier made the supreme sacrifice in giving his life for his country, and for the same people who deny him the last funeral rites deserving of any American hero regardless of his origin," the telegram read. It was aired internationally on radio broadcasts.
Within 24 hours, Garcia and Longoria's widow received a response -- from then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson.
"I deeply regret to learn that the prejudice of some individuals extends even beyond this life," Johnson's response read. "I have no authority over civilian funeral homes. Nor does the federal government. However, I have made arrangements to have Felix Longoria buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery where the honored dead of our nation's war rest."
Longoria was laid to rest on Feb. 16, 1949, with full military honors. Sen. and Lady BirdÂ Johnson both attended the funeral.
The "Felix Longoria Affair" played a significant role in catalyzing Mexican American political consciousness and cemented the GI Forum as the congressionally chartered veterans organization it is today. Garcia remained a close confidant to Johnson. In 1968, President Johnson made him the first Mexican American to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
The GI Forum has evolved from a veterans' rights group into a civil rights organization with more than 160,000 members in 500 chapters in 24 states and Puerto Rico. Today it serves all Hispanics and promotes greater participation in civic affairs, educational attainment, employment, equality in income, and health services.
The forum maintains its founder's motto: "Education is Our Freedom, and Freedom Should be Everybody's Business."