Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Brian D. Behnken's "Fighting Their Own Battles"

Brian D. Behnken is assistant professor in the department of history and the U.S. Latino/a studies program at Iowa State University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Fighting Their Own Battles: Mexican Americans, African Americans, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Texas, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Fighting Their Own Battles is part of the concluding section of the third chapter. It comes after a discussion of the Mexican American and African American civil rights struggles of the early 1960s and offers analysis on black-brown relations at that time. My page 99 largely confirms the Ford Madox Ford thesis.

Throughout the book I not only detail the key events of both civil rights movements, but also explain why these two communities failed to unite their respective freedom struggles. The key reasons why both groups fought their own battles include a perception that they were culturally dissimilar, class tensions, organizational differences, and geographical distance. Most importantly, racial prejudices hampered attempts to build a united movement. In particular, Mexican Americans attempted to position themselves as white people to avoid segregation, which frustrated unity with blacks.

Here is what Page 99 and a small portion of Page 100 have to say:
….This case confirms that white racial positioning still served as a tool in the Mexican American quest for rights. It further shows one reason why blacks and Mexican Americans did not unite.

Like PASO [the Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations], LULAC [the League of United Latin American Citizens] continued to promote the whiteness strategy. In a letter of May 1963 to the TGNC [Texas Good Neighbor Commission], Texas regional governor William Bonilla complained about segregation at a Texas resort. In a pamphlet, the resort made clear, "No Latin Americans or Colored People [Are] Accepted." Bonilla protested the "attitude" of people who would explicitly state that "no Latin Americans are allowed." As in the 1950s, Bonilla indicated that use of the words "colored" and "Latin American" in the same sentence constituted the real problem. If it could not repair this particular situation, Bonilla implied, then the TGNC had failed. The commission's Frank Kelley then wrote to remind the resort’s owners that in Texas "the Latin race is a purely white race." This example again demonstrates that Mexican Americans continued to appeal to the government for support. It also shows that LULACers still promoted whiteness as a method of fighting for Mexican American rights.

The objectives of African Americans and Mexican Americans also paradoxically contributed to disunity. The basic goals of each group appeared identical; to end discrimination, secure rights, eradicate poverty. For many blacks and Mexican Americans, pickets, sit-ins, and political activism resembled each other. In fact, the two groups used similar tactics, although the contexts differed….So each group had similar goals and tactics, but the overall emphasis of each movement differed. This contributed to the lack of African American/Mexican American unity.

Politics also created divisions between Mexican Americans and African Americans. In previous decades, Mexican American leaders had worked diligently to nurture a close working relationship with state leaders, but their endorsement of Price Daniel over John Connally soured this relationship. In the 1960s African Americans saw a much more productive future with the segregationist Daniel out of office and a governor like Connally in the State House. Because of black support, and because JFK's assassination convinced many whites to look more favorably upon black civil rights, black Texans received more state support. Thus, a transformation took place in the Texas government as African Americans became the beneficiaries of state support while Mexican Americans received more hostile treatment. The evolution of the government's role in minority communities served to once again divide the movements. Blacks and Mexican Americans ultimately found themselves in competition for state support, not in cooperation.
What Page 99 leaves out are the instances of black-brown collaboration that occurred throughout the era. For instance, only a handful of pages before Page 99 I detail the legendary filibuster of state senator Henry B. Gonzalez, who railed against anti-integration legislation proposed by the state House in 1957. He was broadly supported by the African American community. The following chapter explores the Mexican American "Minimum Wage March" of 1966, which blacks also supported. And Chapter 5 examines ecumenical activism in Texas, a movement that attempted to bring blacks, whites, and browns together to fight for voting rights, antipoverty aid, and integrated neighborhoods. Thus while Page 99 captures several of the main causes of African American and Mexican American disunity, it misses the instances of cooperation discussed elsewhere in Fighting Their Own Battles.
Learn more about Fighting Their Own Battles at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue