A Civil Rights Triumph

Hernández v. Texas isn’t the most well known civil rights case, but it was the first time a Mexican American, in this case Pedro Hernández of Edna, Texas who was accused of murder, appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court seeking a fair trial. Led by well-known attorney Gus García, a team of lawyers argued that Mexican Americans were “a class apart” and did not neatly fit into a legal structure that recognized only black and white Americans. After all, it was the 1950s, and there was widespread discrimination, with Mexican Americans getting robbed of not only land, but full citizenship rights. The Hernández case struck a chord with Latinos across the country. When funds ran out, the Mexican American community donated to the cause in any way they could.

"They would come up to me and give crumpled-up dollar bills and coins," recalls Carlos Cadena, García’s partner in the case. “These were people who couldn’t afford it, but couldn’t afford not to.”

On January 11, 1954, García and Cadena faced the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. "Can Mexican Americans speak English?" one justice asked. "Are they citizens?" asked another. The lack of knowledge stunned García, who delivered the argument of his life. Chief Justice Earl Warren allowed him to continue a full 16 minutes past the allotted time—a concession that had not been afforded to any other civil rights lawyer, including Thurgood Marshall.

On May 3, 1954, the Supreme Court announced its ruling. Pedro Hernández would receive a new trial, and would be judged by a true jury of his peers. The court’s legal reasoning: Mexican Americans, as a group, were protected under the 14th Amendment, in keeping with the theory that they were indeed "a class apart."

Catch the special A Class Apart, which is part of the award-winning American Experience series on PBS, tonight. Check local listings here.