Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Military And Veterans Affairs: Remembering The Legacy Of Private Felix Longoria Of Three Rivers, Texas

By Luis E. Viera

After World War II, there were few causes with greater relevancy to post-war America than the saga of Private Felix Longoria, a Mexican-American and World War II hero from Three Rivers, Texas. 

Today, few remember what is termed the Longoria Affair, which was one of the earliest post-war civil rights struggles for veterans.

Like so many brave Americans, Private Longoria left behind a wife and child to serve a greater cause for a great country and people. And like so many others, he paid the ultimate price: On June 15, 1945, Private Longoria, while on the Island of Luzon in the Pacific Theatre, was killed by a Japanese sniper.

When Private Longoria’s remains were returned in 1949, his widow, Beatrice, sought to have the wake services at the local funeral parlor. The owner of the funeral home allegedly refused Beatrice a wake service for her Mexican-American husband because he believed “the whites would not like it.” The Texas of 1949 was a Texas where strict racial lines ― often enforced through violence ― existed. 

After this dispute, Beatrice took action, and her protests ― aided by the late Dr. Hector Garcia of the American G.I. Forum ― caught the attention of then Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson.  Johnson, a man whose conscience on racial and social justice would not be fully exhibited until he became president, had the remains of Felix Longoria buried with his fellow heroes in Arlington National Cemetery. On February 16, 1949, Sen. Johnson and his wife joined the Longoria family for the Arlington funeral.

The Longoria Affair is a story of many heroes. But there are many heroes bearing names we may never know. As one of Private Longoria’s family members once remarked, “How many Felix Longoria cases must have gone unheard of?”

Indeed, one of the injustices that prompted President Harry S. Truman to desegregate the military were stories of African Americans ― returning home from heroic World War II service ― being attacked in Jim Crow states for violating local customs. Many of the great names in the civil rights movement ― such as Medgar Evers ― were World War II heroes who returned to seek a more compassionate nation. 

This past July, I took my 7-year-old son, Luis Jr., on a trip that I had been planning since I found out I was going to become a father: to Washington, D.C.  While in D.C., I took my son to Arlington National Cemetery and visited, among others, the grave of Private Longoria. He rests there along with other Americans who, while in their youth, gave all for humanity in World War II.  Few today know the symbolic significance of this man’s legacy.

While at Arlington, I told Luis Jr. about our family’s experiences in this country ― how his grandparents and great grandparents fled Communist Cuba in 1960 and how, without patriots like Private Longoria, we would have never been free.

Longoria’s story has a unique connection to the values of the HCBA’s Military & Veterans Affairs Committee. I am proud to support this committee as it allows us to, in our time, do right by today’s returning veterans who, like Felix Longoria, have overlooked needs. And these are needs created by their heroic service to us.  

In honoring those who serve, we should pay special attention to the story of Private Longoria. Here, the poor in spirit and those who mourned and thirst for righteousness were peacemakers and were ultimately comforted.