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Latino/a and African American Relations

Summary and Keywords

African Americans and Latino/as have had a long history of social interactions that have been strongly affected by the broader sense of race in the United States. Race in the United States has typically been constructed as a binary of black and white. Latino/as do not fit neatly into this binary. Some Latino/as have argued for a white racial identity, which has at times frustrated their relationships with black people. For African Americans and Latino/as, segregation often presented barriers to good working relationships. The two groups were often segregated from each other, making them mutually invisible. This invisibility did not make for good relations.

Latino/as and blacks found new avenues for improving their relationships during the civil rights era, from the 1940s to the 1970s. A number of civil rights protests generated coalitions that brought the two communities together in concerted campaigns. This was especially the case for militant groups such as the Black Panther Party, the Mexican American Brown Berets, and the Puerto Rican Young Lords, as well as in the Poor People’s Campaign. Interactions among African Americans and Mexican American, Puerto Rican, and Cuban/Cuban American illustrate the deep and often convoluted sense of race consciousness in American history, especially during the time of the civil rights movement.

Keywords: African American, Latino/a, Mexican American, Puerto Rican, Cuban/Cuban American, race relations, civil rights movement, coalition building

African American and Latino/a relations during the civil rights era is a complicated topic, made more so by differences in community interactions and the geography of black and Latino/a peoples. Relations tended to differ by city and state, and especially by the national origins of various Latino/a groups. Race relations also differed based on the relative potency of Jim Crow segregation. In a southern state like Texas, for instance, Jim Crow pitted blacks and Latino/as against each other. In other states with a less rigid, more de facto type of segregation, blacks and Latino/as had more room to maneuver in their respective struggle for rights. Relations also tended to differ from state to state and city to city, depending on the relative populations of these groups.

The racial histories of various colonies or nations in Latin America also affected black–Latino/a relations in the United States. For example, the racial history of Mexico differed from that of Puerto Rico. Mexico had a racial hierarchy not dissimilar to that of the United States, with white Mexicans at the top of the social and political hierarchy, and nonwhites below. Mexico also had a smaller black slave population during its colonial period, and thus a smaller black population in the postcolonial era. Spain’s Caribbean colonies had much larger slave populations, which made their postcolonial populations more ethno-racially diverse. As such, Mexicans who came to the United States had an understanding of black people not altogether different from understandings common among white Americans, while Puerto Ricans who migrated there often came with a more inclusive understanding of race. That understanding could, and often did, work to open dialogues and cross-ethnic collaborations between African Americans and Puerto Ricans.

Collectively known as the “Big Three,” Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Cuban Americans comprise the largest population group of all Latino/a people in the United States (76 percent of the nation’s total Latino/a population). That percentage was similar in the civil rights period. As such, if black Americans were to encounter Latino/as, they typically encountered Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Cuban Americans.

The civil rights activism of these groups reflects the obstacles they sought to eliminate, especially racial segregation. Racial acrimony, especially between blacks and Mexican Americans and between blacks and Cuban Americans, often stymied common civil rights efforts. But coalitions were also possible, and African Americans and Mexican Americans, and especially African Americans and Puerto Ricans, could generate sustained cooperative efforts, particularly the cross-ethnic coalition that was the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC). Looking at Latino/a–African American relations across multiple regions and ethnic groups reveals the diversity of the experiences of the groups across the United States. A “one size fits all” analysis simply does not fit black–brown relations. Rather, an ever-shifting and sweeping number of relationships between Latino/as and blacks, often dependent on shared and competing economic, political, and social conditions, characterized black–brown relations in the United States. Ultimately the civil rights movement represented a moment of coalitional possibility between African Americans and Latino/as which had moments of great success amid some notable failures.

Jim Crow Segregation and Racial Discrimination

Many Americans think of Jim Crow segregation as a distinctly southern phenomenon. While the bulk of de jure segregation laws were certainly crafted in the U.S. South, the broader patterns of racial and ethnic segregation were national, not regional. Neighborhood segregation in southern cities such as Houston, San Antonio, or Miami were only marginally different from non-southern cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York City. While many southern states and their cities enacted laws and ordinances that segregated businesses, it was common for blacks and Latino/as to encounter segregation signs in businesses that read “We Cater to White Trade Only” or “No Spanish or Mexicans” in Phoenix, Arizona, Los Angeles, or elsewhere.1 Schools were also segregated across the United States. Numerous communities developed a tripartite type of school segregation, with schools for whites, blacks, and Latino/as.2

In their day-to-day lives, African Americans and Latino/as experienced many commonalities with the regimes of segregation they encountered. Public places, neighborhoods, schools, and city facilities were all segregated by race and ethnicity. Many states prohibited or strongly discouraged interracial or interethnic marriage. Political rights were not extended to blacks and Latino/as, and voting and jury service, especially, were prohibited or proscribed. Popular culture mocked and vilified blacks and Latino/as. Most egregiously, African Americans and Latino/as suffered from very real threats to their lives: lynching afflicted both groups in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and throughout this period heavy-handed law enforcement tactics and police brutality also served to control blacks and Latino/as.

Beyond the basic and ugly racism evident in the system itself, segregation hid the problems of African Americans and Latino/as from one another and often worked to establish a framework of antagonism between these groups. For example, San Antonio drew its segregation lines both ethno-racially and geographically. The African American population of the city was segregated on the east side of town, while the Mexican-origin population was segregated on the west side. Each part of town had its own segregated schools. When protesting school segregation, each community tended to fight for itself because of the education system’s racial lines.3 School desegregation battles also developed based on different legal issues. For black people, racial segregation in schools was a matter of state law, and thus black activists had a distinctly racist body of laws they could challenge in court. For Mexican Americans segregation was less well codified, and if they used the courts they first had to prove that segregation existed, and then find remedies to it. Thus, the legal battles and methods of legal redress differed.4

Segregation could not prevent all cross-ethnic contact, such as the intimate relationships of blacks and browns. Miscegenation, a pejorative term for interracial marriage of blacks and whites, was banned in many states, but relationships between blacks and Latino/as were legally, if not always socially, permissible. In California, state law banned intermarriage between whites, blacks, Indians, and Asians, but said nothing of Latinos. The decision signaling the demise of a ban on white–Latino intermarriage, Perez v. Sharp, occurred in 1948. The Los Angeles county clerk, W. G. Sharp, had refused to grant a marriage license to Sylvester Davis, who was black, and Andrea Perez, a Mexican American, because Perez had identified herself as “white” on their application, a claim that threatened traditional understandings of white supremacy. The California Supreme Court in a vote of 4–3 declared California’s anti-miscegenation law was unconstitutional—the first state supreme court to do so, and a predecessor to Loving v. Virginia, in which the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated all anti-miscegenation laws.5

Shared grievances could also generate coalitions. Police brutality is a good example of this phenomenon. For generations, blacks and Latino/as suffered abuses from law enforcement. When one group suffered from police brutality, those in another group could relate to it. In numerous examples across the United States, blacks and Latino/as came together to protest police abuse and brutality. While these protests occurred primarily after the 1960s, there are also a number of examples from earlier eras.

Segregation and racism could, then, act as barriers to close relations and coalition building. But the racism inherent in segregation could also lead to cross-racial unity, especially if the abuses blacks and Latino/as suffered came from a similar source, such as police brutality, or if the instance of racism and segregation stemmed from a more personal space, as in the example of Perez and Davis.

African American and Mexican American Activism and Relations

Mexican Americans and African Americans across the U.S. Southwest had a long history of interactions and civil rights activism. In some cases these interactions were beneficial and positive, but in others they were negative or harmful to collaboration. Some Mexicans came to the United States with a preconceived notion of white supremacy, or they quickly learned its power once there. The U.S. racial binary presented some Mexican Americans with a strategy to eradicate the segregation they experienced; they could argue that Mexican-origin people were white. Since the alternative to whiteness in the racial binary was to be considered black, and since black people were legally segregated and second-class citizens, whiteness made sense to some Mexican American leaders.6

The ferocity with which some Mexican Americans fought for inclusion in the white race was frequently intense. In newspaper articles, letters of protest to government officials, lawsuits, and public protests, Mexican Americans demanded recognition as white people throughout the early 20th century. In some parts of the Southwest, this was more a simplistic battle about what Mexican-origin people should be called. For example, in New Mexico and Arizona, Mexican Americans preferred and occasionally demanded to be called Spanish Americans, Iberian Americans, or Hispanos, which connoted European ancestry.7 In other cases, the battles were more intense. In Texas, for example, Mexican American leaders vigorously fought for and in many instances won recognition as white. They then had to fight to maintain that status.8

In other instances, Mexican Americans won important legal decisions by arguing for whiteness. A number of school desegregation cases bear this out. Similarly, and most importantly, Hernandez v. Texas (1954) cogently made an argument for including Mexican-origin people in the white race for the purpose of jury selection. In that case, Pete Hernandez was convicted of killing Joe Espinosa in 1951. Hernandez’s lawyers appealed. That appeal went to the Supreme Court where, two weeks before the more famous Brown v. Board of Education decision, the court acknowledged that Mexican Americans were a recognized class of white people, and that their exclusion from Hernandez’s jury pool was discriminatory.9

The problem with whiteness was that it complicated Mexican American relations with black people. African Americans generally interpreted whiteness negatively, viewing it as, at best, an attempt by Mexican Americans to curry favor with whites and, at worst, a fabricated identity that may have lifted some Mexican-origin people out of Jim Crow but left black people firmly segregated. Not all black people were offended by Mexican American white racialization, but such positioning could lead to hurt feelings that impeded collaboration. As one black Texan explained, Mexican American whiteness “didn’t make us [African Americans] feel very good.”10

Other instances of white racialization also marred collaborative efforts during the 1960s. For example, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) originally welcomed the participation of whites, and by extension Mexican Americans. Several Mexican Americans joined the group in the South, especially the now well-known activists Elizabeth Martínez and María Varela. But in 1967 leaders in SNCC dismissed all whites, and SNCC became a major Black Power organization. Unfortunately, in dismissing whites the group also dismissed its Mexican American collaborators and severed ties with Mexican American civil rights groups.11

In fact, SNCC’s earlier history illustrates its beginnings as a multiethnic group that welcomed all allies, white, black, and Mexican American. California’s Bay Area chapter of SNCC not only had some Mexican American members but also pioneered a coalition with Cesar Chavez’s National Farm Workers Association. SNCC activists in California not only joined forces with the farm workers, they in many cases trained the farm workers in nonviolent resistance, and provided technical assistance in the form of walkie-talkies so the farm workers could maintain communication during their protests; SNCC also promoted the NFWA’s national boycott of grape products.12 The presence of Mexican Americans in SNCC and the SNCC-NFWA alliance proved short-lived and ended when SNCC expelled all whites.

Other instances of cooperation are equally important. In California, blacks and Mexican Americans had since the 1930s joined in a number of efforts to battle the racism of the period. Some organizations assumed a more confrontational stance. For example, El Congreso de Pueblos de Habla Española (El Congreso, Congress of Spanish-speaking Peoples) developed in the 1930s. Founded by the labor organizer Luisa Moreno and led by the activists Eduardo Quevedo and Josefina Fierro de Bright, the group pushed an aggressive civil rights agenda. While often thought of as a Mexican American organization, El Congreso had a much bolder agenda of encouraging unity with all groups—Mexican American, African American, white liberal—interested in the uplift of under-represented people. The group therefore downplayed ethnic-racial differences in support of civil rights. Because of the anticommunist sentiment of the era, El Congreso was “red-baited” and folded in 1942.

It is also important to remember that while some Mexican Americans fought for whiteness through the courts, others employed different strategies that won the support of African American allies. In the 1948 Mendez v. Westminster school desegregation case, Mexican American families sued to integrate an Orange County, California school district. Unlike the Hernandez case, Mendez did not rely on an argument that posited Mexican American whiteness as a reason for desegregation. Instead, the lawsuit argued that segregation violated the Fourteenth Amendment rights of Mexican Americans. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) supported the case, and Thurgood Marshall coauthored an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief. With this support, Mexican Americans won the case.

This type of coalition building continued into the activist phase of the civil rights period, with the alliances developed by members of the Chicano (a term then used by activists for Mexican American) Brown Berets and the Black Panther Party. The Panthers originated in 1966 in Oakland and quickly spread to other cities, such as Los Angeles. The Brown Berets were founded in 1968. Like the Panthers, they were a self-defense group aimed at protecting the Mexican American community from police brutality and other forms of state violence. Like its focus, the Brown Berets borrowed its structural organization from the Panthers. Additionally, similar to the Panthers, the Brown Berets promoted Chicano cultural nationalism, demanded strict discipline, and emphasized a particular notion of masculinity among its members, which not surprisingly resulted in a vast majority of its leadership being male.

The Brown Berets first major outing began in 1968 with the “LA Blowouts,” massive protests of high school youths who decried the substandard education they received in Los Angeles. The Berets assisted in the organization of the Blowouts and protected the students from the police. In subsequent protests, especially anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, the Berets joined forces with the Panthers in Los Angeles. Numerous Brown Berets also participated in major protests the Panthers planned. While never a named coalition, many of the Berets and Panthers saw themselves as parallel organizations.13

Other radical groups also joined forces. The Black Panther Party, for instance, worked closely with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW, formerly the NFWA). This was especially evident when BPP founder Bobby Seale became a candidate for mayor of Oakland in 1973. The BPP had previously supported the farm workers’ opposition to California’s Proposition 22, an initiative by California’s agribusinesses designed to undercut the ability of farm workers to protest and strike. The BPP sided with the UFW and issued a number of statements encouraging black voters to reject the proposition in 1972. These efforts were successful, and the proposition was soundly voted down. This success encouraged more collaboration, and when Seale decided to run for mayor of Oakland, the UFW supported his candidacy. Bobby Seale openly courted the Mexican American vote, published campaign material in English and Spanish, and included African Americans and Mexican Americans equally in his campaign. The BPP also won the endorsement of Cesar Chavez. Despite this flurry of activism, Seale lost the election.14

For African Americans and Mexican Americans, race relations and cross-ethnic civil rights efforts proved somewhat of a mixed bag. While in the 1940s and 1950s these groups frequently had difficulty working together, by the 1960s and 1970s avenues for more cooperative efforts presented themselves. Part of the increase in cooperation is attributable to the civil rights reforms of the 1960s and the diminishing ideological power of whiteness at this time. More importantly, as both groups grew in relative numbers and strength, many activists recognized the power that came with cooperation. While their efforts were not always successful, coalition building became a far more potent tactic than more divisive strategies, such as white racial positioning or attempting to fight battles alone.

African Americans and Puerto Ricans

Puerto Ricans and African Americans have generally lived in close proximity to one another, in the United States and on the island, and have typically shared a closer relationship than blacks and Mexican Americans. Puerto Rican settlement in New York City is a good example of this. El Barrio, Manhattan’s neighborhood of Puerto Rican settlement, is directly adjacent to Harlem, historically the neighborhood with the highest concentration of African Americans in the city. Puerto Rico’s multiethnic population had already facilitated a more collaborative dialogue between the two groups in places as diverse as New York City and Chicago. Puerto Rico’s African-origin population certainly gave some nonblack Puerto Ricans a vantage point through which to view African Americans. The many writings of Jesús Cólon, such as A Puerto Rican in New York (1961), detailed life in New York City from both black and Latino/a positions. For their part, African American civil rights activists tended also to welcome Puerto Rican allies.15

There are numerous instances of cooperative relations and civil rights activism shared by blacks and Puerto Ricans. One good way to see this is by exploring the history of labor unions. In New York City, the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) had for decades had a large percentage of Latina and African American women. By the 1950s and 1960s, women of color predominated in at least six of the major locals of the ILGWU. Despite their numbers, almost all of these women were rank-and-file union members who held the lowest-paying jobs in the workforce and had no real presence in the union’s, or their local’s, leadership. They had also experienced a great deal of discrimination from management as well as union leaders. By the 1960s they were no longer willing to accept this abuse.16

African American and Puerto Rican workers began constructing strategic alliances within labor movements after a series of congressional investigations in the early 1960s. There was initially some give and take regarding the supposed similarities and differences of black and Puerto Rican experiences in the unions. While some saw hope for unity, others saw a long history of conflict. But within the union they learned from one another, and via the ILGWU’s Training Institute some blacks and Puerto Ricans were able to craft their own positions of authority and leadership. Moreover, a Puerto Rican sense of being an oppressed minority group similar to African Americans facilitated greater unity in the unions. That greater sense of unity also helped cross-ethnic alliances develop outside of the unions.17

These cross-ethnic alliances were particularly visible in settlement house work and education. One leader, Manny Diaz, had gained an education in leadership via the unions, and later became involved in settlement work. Diaz, for instance, found white settlement workers much more amenable to ethnic leadership and programs specifically for members of ethno-racial communities than were the unions. The same was also true for those interested in improving black and Puerto Rican access to education. Diaz found great unity in a group called Mobilization for Youth (MFY), which began as a settlement house initiative designed to combat juvenile delinquency. Blacks and Puerto Ricans also developed a similar united group called the United Bronx Parents (UBP). This group used a community control model to fight against the marginalization of minority schoolchildren, who in the Bronx made up the vast majority of students. The UBP aimed to unite marginalized people and their school-age children in a multiethnic coalition that would utilize the distinct sense of cultural nationalism (itself a product of 1960s activism) to promote expanded and culturally sensitive educational reforms for black and Puerto Rican youths.18

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the collaborative mission of Puerto Ricans and African Americans than the militant organizations of the period, especially Chicago’s Black Panther Party and the Young Lords. The charismatic Fred Hampton first organized the Chicago chapter of the BPP in 1968. The Young Lords, led by Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez, were initially a territorial gang that morphed into a civil rights group in 1968. Hampton and Jimenez worked closely together, and the foundational documents of both groups, particularly their programs, mirrored one another. The BPP’s ten-point program called for full employment for black people, opposed military service (then compulsory for U.S. men) for blacks, and advocated community control and armed self-defense, an end to police brutality, and the creation of a socialist society, among other points. The Young Lords’ thirteen-point program included self-determination for Puerto Ricans, community control of institutions and land, bilingual and bicultural education, opposition to military service, armed self-defense and armed struggle, and a socialist society, among other points. Thus the two groups mirrored each other, and in Chicago the two organizations were quickly spliced into the broader Rainbow Coalition.19

The original Rainbow Coalition established by Hampton was a multiethnic group that had broad goals, which included greater political representation for under-represented groups, an end to police brutality, and access to programs of the federal War on Poverty established in the mid-1960s. One of the group’s most noteworthy achievements had to do with gang violence. Jimenez, Hampton, and other leaders rightly believed that gang warfare diminished the strength of ethnic communities and was a tool used by local white politicians for political gain. So the Rainbow Coalition successfully brokered a number of treaties between various gangs to end this violence. Such treaties also helped to facilitate another goal of the Rainbow Coalition, ending police brutality. With an easing of tension and violence between rival gangs, police involvement, they hoped, would be lessened in the various ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago.20

African American and Puerto Rican coalitions also proved significant in other areas where the Young Lords operated chapters. While the New York City branch did not work as closely with black activists as did the Chicago branch, the New York Young Lords maintained ties with Black Power leaders. In other locales where there were no established BPP or Young Lords chapters, the two communities worked in tandem. In Camden, New Jersey, for example, black and Puerto Rican activists came together after police killed an unarmed Puerto Rican man in 1971. Instead of the established civil rights groups, blacks and Puerto Ricans joined forces in a grassroots effort to demand changes in how the police treated minority suspects. They also participated in a massive rally to convince the city government to alter police procedures. The city’s inaction ultimately led to a riot in Camden, a multiethnic upheaval that forcefully demanded rights denied to local communities of color. While not much changed with the city government or police, the riot did cement relations with black and Puerto Rican activists, who found great strength in collaborative activism.21

African Americans and Puerto Ricans, then, tended to have a more cooperative type of race relations. Their unity, of course, took work, but the coalitions pioneered by labor leaders, parents interested in better education, or activist groups such as the Young Lords and the Black Panthers represented a spirit of cooperation that was often harder to establish where blacks and Mexican Americans battled for rights. Such coalitions also proved difficult between African Americans and Cuban/Cuban Americans.

Black and Cuban American Relations

The black freedom struggle in Miami, Florida, had been going on for many years when large numbers of Cuban exiles began settling in the city after Fidel Castro’s successful revolution in Cuba in 1959. Numerous Cubans, especially those with the means to leave or those with jobs in American corporations, fled Cuba after Castro took over. They experienced significant hardships and were often forced to leave with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing. The U.S. government, as well as Florida and Miami-Dade County governments, all responded with a variety of social aid programs designed to assist the Cuban exiles. And therein rose the among local black people.22

The aid Cubans received ranged from access to social welfare programs to increased enrollment in local universities. Cubans also eventually received expedited citizenship and access to federal home and business loans, to name just a few of the benefits offered by the U.S. government. Moreover, politicians and Americans more generally tended to visualize and valorize Cubans as Cold War allies who deserved these benefits.23 In contrast, African Americans had for generations been a part of what many in government viewed as the undeserving poor. As American citizens, black people felt entitled to such aid, but they could really only watch as the various levels of government bestowed social aid on non- citizens. This increased tension not only with Cuban exiles, but also with the various levels of government that seemed willing to empower Cuban immigrants while disempowering black Americans.24

For blacks in Miami, perhaps nothing better illustrated the unfairness of this situation than the battle to integrate local schools. For years after the 1954 Brown decision, black residents had attempted to enroll their children in segregated white schools. When local schools did begin admitting a few black children, the response of white people was to withdraw their children from the schools, resulting in massive white flight from Miami-area schools. When Cubans began arriving, the district willingly admitted Cuban children and began offering an extensive program designed to help these children adjust to life in the United States, including an accelerated English language instruction program. As such, local government responses facilitated Cuban integration into the school system while continuing to deny black people access to quality education.25

The situation in Miami, and in other communities where Cuban migrants settled, exacerbated tensions between African Americans and Cubans. Some Cubans readily accepted this situation, adopting a distinctly conservative political outlook that, as they saw it, would help protect the benefits bestowed by federal, state, and local governments. Other Cubans, however, were really being used as pawns by U.S. anticommunists. They had no distinct animus toward black people and were perhaps ignorant of how black people might have felt about the situation. To put this differently, the tension between Cubans and African Americans was not solely the fault of the Cuban exiles. Instead, government practices in distributing aid and the competition for government assistance created a tense environment that prevented Cuban–African American cooperation.

Multiethnic Coalitions: The Poor People’s Campaign

African Americans and Latino/as had pioneered coalitions locally in cities as diverse as Chicago, New York City, Houston, or Los Angeles, but a nationally focused coalition was a major task of the various civil rights struggles in the mid-1960s. Of the attempts at coalition building, none proved more important than the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC). The PPC was the brainchild of Martin Luther King Jr., who viewed combating poverty as the second phase of the civil rights movement. King sent out a call for activists to meet in Atlanta in 1968 at a gathering that came to be called the Minority Group Conference. The conference was attended by representatives of almost every major ethnic group in the country, including Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, and poor whites.26 King was, however, ignorant of the specific issues of his nonblack allies, which convinced some Latino/as that the PPC was not a worthwhile venture. For example, José Angel Gutiérrez, an important activist Mexican American from Texas, had asked King, “Is this another black-white thing or are we involved?”27 Gutiérrez was evidently dissatisfied with King’s response; he and others from Texas did not participate in the campaign. Similarly, Cesar Chavez did not attend the Minority Group Conference, even though he had been invited. Chavez saw the PPC as having little chance of success, and he worried that joining the campaign might weaken his union work in California.28

Others, however, chose to attempt to work out their differences with King and the other activists involved in the PPC. As opposed to simply seeing ignorance, some leaders, such as the New Mexican land reform activist Reies López Tijerina, chose to educate King about Mexican American land issues. Colorado’s Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales made it clear that he and other activists in his Crusade for Justice would participate, but on an equal footing with King and the other black leaders. Thus Gonzales stressed the equal leadership role that all the groups would share, instead of simply presuming that the PPC would be led by King or other African American leaders. A spirit of cooperation was established, therefore, when Latino/a leaders demanded an equal place at the table.29

King was assassinated only a few months after the Minority Group Conference. The activists involved in the conference wondered if the PPC would go forward after his death. Ralph David Abernathy, King’s hand-picked successor, made the PPC a memorial to King, telling the other groups involved in the campaign that King’s death, which came during a sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennesee, was demonstrative of the deleterious effects of poverty in the United States. The PPC went forward.30

After King’s assassination, Abernathy organized a massive gathering in Washington, D.C., to protest the nation’s treatment of poor people and expand the attention given them by the federal government. The nation’s capital offered an excellent venue for this goal. Activists constructed a tent city at the National Mall. Resurrection City, as it came to be called, would house the activists who traveled to Washington, D.C. From Resurrection City, volunteers could march through the capital, picket the Supreme Court, and demand that Congress pass legislation that addressed the needs of the nation’s poor.31

The protest brought thousands of activists from across the county to Washington, D.C. These included African Americans, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, whites, and Native Americans. But the protests in the capital quickly spun out of control. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) disrupted the campaign. The FBI’s actions including spreading misinformation about the campaign, infiltrating PPC protests and meetings, and using paid informants to report on the campaign’s activities. Moreover, Resurrection City experienced numerous problems. Several days of rain left the camp a muddy, flooded mess. Some of the groups involved in the campaign also had trouble working together. Black leaders did not treat the Latino/a and Native American participants particularly well, and some of the latter felt excluded from leadership. Tijerina commented that “the black militants seem to have taken over out here and nobody gets a chance to talk.”32 He and other Mexican Americans threatened to leave the protest. Mexican Americans eventually abandoned Resurrection City and relocated to the Hawthorne School, a private experimental academy.

In the end, the PPC did not generate the kind of response from government, nor the long-lasting unity between different peoples of color, that the campaign’s organizers had hoped it would. While the Poor People’s Campaign was for many years decried as a failure, it did produce some results. First, although cross-ethnic alliances generated by the campaign did not last long, their occurrence remains important. Second, the campaign taught leaders from a variety of communities important lessons about coalition building. Third, although the coalition itself fell apart, it strengthened bonds within at least some of the groups involved. This was particularly true for Mexican American activists, who found via the campaign an increased sense of awareness about the Mexican-origin community across the United States as well as greater unity among the various state-level Mexican American activist groups.33

Thus, African American and Latino/a relations illustrate a long, complex history in a nation where race consciousness remained strong throughout the 20th century. For many years before the civil rights era, blacks and Latino/as were often distant from one another, separated by the segregation of the era or by perceived ideological and philosophical differences. The racial dynamics at work in the United States also often inhibited close relationship. In particular, the racial binary in numerous American cities and towns, with its distinct black-white dichotomy, tended to fracture close relationships. This was especially true when Latino/a people positioned themselves as members of the “white race.” Blacks did not tend to look favorably upon this racial positioning, or they tended to ignore Latino/as because of it.

During the civil rights era, however, more chances for interaction presented themselves. The activism of the period often necessitated a close working relationship between these groups. This was especially true during the more militant phases of the movement, when Black Power and Brown Power or Puerto Rican Power activists came together to discuss coalitions, borrow ideas and tactics, and generate new campaigns. This proved true when blacks and Latino/as shared similar problems, especially police brutality and poverty. As such, the civil rights era represented a unique moment when these groups actively worked to improve their own race relations in order to more effectively combat the racism(s) that they encountered.

Discussion of the Literature

A growing body of scholarship on black/Latino/a relations has emerged within the past decade or so. This scholarship has generally fallen into several different methods or modes of discussion. Some studies compare the various communities and their civil rights movements, discussing the protests of the groups in relation to one another. Others tend to explore relations by examining the coalitions that blacks and Latino/as forged. Still other works treat specific groups, their organizations, and their histories in distinct chapters. Much of this literature focuses on a regional, state, or city level. Finally, there is a growing body of literature on relations viewed from the perspective of culture.

Generally speaking, the comparative type of scholarship has tended to be the most popular way of writing about blacks and Latino/as. Neil Foley’s Quest for Equality (2010) and Brian Behnken’s Fighting Their Own Battles (2011) are good examples. Foley examines Mexican American and African American efforts to end employment discrimination in the defense industries during World War II and to integrate schools after the war. He shows that differences in group power, class level, and ideology made strategic alliances for African Americans and Mexican Americans difficult. Behnken has a similar approach, but one more specifically focused on the civil rights activism of the 1950s to 1970s. He explores well-known types of protest activism such as sit-ins or boycotts, and periods such as the Black Power and Brown Power eras.

One state-focused volume, looking at different communities in different chapters, is Mark Brilliant’s excellent study The Color of America Has Changed (2010). Brilliant’s overall goal is to present a multiethnic account of what he calls California’s “wide civil rights movement.” His ultimate conclusions mirror those of other scholars who have analyzed the gains and pitfalls of multiracial civil rights struggles. In a similar approach, Lauren Araiza in To March for Others (2013) concentrates on coalition building among African American and Mexican American activists in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That chronology is important to her focus, as Araiza is able to bypass the earlier, tenser moments in California’s civil rights history. She notes that activists in SNCC assisted Cesar Chavez’s National Farm Workers Association. Araiza also shows how the Black Panther Party worked with the farm workers well into the 1970s. Shana Bernstein also provides a unique perspective on LA in Bridges of Reform (2011). She explores the cooperative activism generated by the anticommunism of the 1940s. In fact, she asserts that the Cold War climate, which has usually been seen as destructive to civil-rights efforts, actually facilitated coalition building, as blacks and browns battled not only for civil rights but also for protection in an unwelcoming political environment.

Sonia Lee’s Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement (2014) is an excellent account of Puerto Rican–African American activism and relations in the New York City area. She joins a host of scholars, from Lorrin Thomas to Brian Purnell, to explore race and civil rights in that city. Lee pays particular attention to how black activism spurred Puerto Rican activism. She demonstrates how Puerto Ricans initially looked to black activism hesitantly, but over time they came to see the many connections between the Puerto Rican community and the African American community. Jakobi Williams takes a similar approach in From the Bullet to the Ballot (2015), which focuses on Chicago. He shows how the original Rainbow Coalition was conceived by Fred Hampton to bring together activists there. In 1969, Cha Cha Jimenez and the Young Lords organization joined forces with the BPP in the Rainbow Coalition. The two groups had many similarities, especially their focus on community control and their own experiences in the city of Chicago. Frederick Douglass Opie’s Upsetting the Apple Cart (2014) concentrates on black and Latino civil rights efforts in both New York City and Chicago, and he also focuses on Puerto Ricans and Cuban Americans, as well as a few other Latino groups. This makes his book more inclusive as to the cast of Latino/a characters.

Gordon Mantler’s Power to the Poor (2013) is a wide-ranging account of the Poor People’s Campaign. Mantler’s focus is more national in scope and demonstrates that the PPC was one of the key moments in African American and Latino/a coalition building. He documents the long history of antipoverty activism in the United States, noting that multiple strands of it existed long before the PPC. He also shows that while the campaign itself ultimately failed and the connections made by various activists of color rarely lasted beyond the campaign, the PPC produced numerous intraracial benefits, especially for the burgeoning Chicano movement.

Other scholars examine relations though the lens of culture. Danny Widener, Luis Alvarez, and Gaye Theresa Johnson have explored ethnic relations via the impact of music on black-Latino/a interactions. Widener and Alvarez’s work (2012) on “brown-eyed soul” music is particularly relevant given that they focus on music as well as night life, highlighting the ways blacks and Mexican Americans/Latinos came together for recreation and social protest. Johnson’s work (2013) is similarly important. She explores how the racial geography of Los Angeles and the cultural, especially musical, alliances of blacks and browns led to a social activism built around solidarity and sound.

Finally, there is a growing body of literature that positions African American–Latino/a relations within an international framework. Laura Pulido (2006) and Cynthia Young (2006) have explored interactions from a discursive, Third World Internationalism viewpoint. Frank Guridy (2010) and Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof (2010) push international analysis further, exploring racial issues at multiple transnational sites. Hoffnung-Garskoff, for example, examines African American, Dominican, and Afro-Latino interaction in both Santo Domingo and New York City. Guridy’s Forging Diaspora (2010) is an excellent account of the transnational relationships developed by African Americans and Afro-Cubans that reinforced, and united, both groups in a shared battle against racism and oppression.

Primary Sources

Primary sources that examine black and Latino/a relations and civil rights are often difficult to discover because archivists tend to catalog these items within a particular ethno-racial framework. The papers of a well-known individual who pioneered cross-ethnic alliances, such as those of Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales are found under the keywords like “Mexican American Leadership – Colorado” or “Mexican Americans – Civil Rights – West (U.S.).” There is no subject keyword that indicates Gonzales’s involvement in collaborative civil rights activism with African Americans, and therefore to discover his involvement historians must search within the collection itself. Primary sources that detail black/Latino relations are thus difficult to locate and often involve exploring multiple collections from individuals and organizations.

There are numerous collections pertaining to individuals black and Latino/a leaders. For some important collections pertaining to prominent black and Latino/a leaders, researchers should explore the voluminous papers of Martin Luther King Jr., at the King Center for Peace and Nonviolent Social Change; the Cesar Chavez papers at Wayne State University; the papers of Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales at the Denver Public Library; the Reies López Tijerina papers at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque; and the José Angel Gutiérrez papers at the University of Texas, San Antonio. Researchers should also consider exploring the various organizations these individuals, and others like them, were associated with. This would include the papers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the King Center; the United Farm Workers papers at Wayne State; the Alianza Federal de Pueblos Libres collection at the University of New Mexico; and the Raza Unida Party papers at the University of Texas.

There also exists a host of organizational archival collections across the United States. The University of Texas has a massive collection relating to the League of United Latin American Citizens. The papers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Congress of Racial Equality were microfilmed and are available at many libraries. The Young Lords Collection is housed at DePaul University.

A number of universities and public libraries house collections relating to local and statewide figures and groups. For examples of a few libraries and a few collections, see the Eldridge Cleaver papers at the University of California, Berkeley; the George I. Sánchez papers at the University of Texas; the Bayard Rustin papers at Duke University; the Ella Baker papers at the Schomburg Center of the New York Public Library; the Mario G. Obledo papers at the University of California, Davis; or the Ernesto Galarza Papers at Stanford University.

Additional primary materials such as legal cases and oral history interviews are available in many of the archival collections mentioned above. Some legal records are also available digitally on open-access sites such as and on subscription sites such as or Some government documents are available at the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration. State governments also collect voluminous archival material, most of which is available at libraries in state capitals.

Relatively little of the material on African American and Latino/a civil rights and relations has been digitized. For a few examples, see the following.

Herman Baca Collection, University of California, San Diego.

Civil Rights in Black and Brown.

Further Reading

Alvarez, Luis, and Danny Widener. “Brown-Eyed Soul: Popular Music and Cultural Politics in Los Angeles.” In The Struggle in Black and Brown. Edited by Brian D. Behnken, 211–236. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.Find this resource:

    Araiza, Lauren. To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.Find this resource:

      Behnken, Brian D. Fighting Their Own Battles: Mexican Americans, African Americans, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Texas. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.Find this resource:

        Behnken, Brian D., ed. The Struggle in Black and Brown: African American and Mexican American Relations during the Civil Rights Era. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.Find this resource:

          Bernstein, Shana. Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

            Brilliant, Mark. The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941–1978. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

              Foley, Neil. Quest for Equality: The Failed Promise of Black-Brown Solidarity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

                Hoffnung-Garskof, Jesse. A Tale of Two Cities: Santo Domingo and New York after 1950. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

                  Guridy, Frank Andre. Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.Find this resource:

                    Johnson, Gaye Theresa. Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity: Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                      Kun, Josh. Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                        Lee, Sonia Song-Ha. Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement: Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.Find this resource:

                          Mantler, Gordon K. Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960–1974. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                            Opie, Frederick Douglass. Upsetting the Apple Cart: Black-Latino Coalitions in New York City from Protest to Public Office. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

                              Pulido, Laura. Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.Find this resource:

                                Purnell, Brian. Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013.Find this resource:

                                  Reitan, Ruth. The Rise and Decline of an Alliance: Cuba and African American Leaders in the 1960s. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

                                    Rose, Chanelle N. The Struggle for Black Freedom in Miami: Civil Rights and America’s Tourist Paradise 1896–1968. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

                                      Sánchez-Korrol, Virginia E. From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.Find this resource:

                                        Thomas, Lorrin. Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.Find this resource:

                                          Williams, Jakobi. From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.Find this resource:

                                            Young, Cynthia A. Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.Find this resource:


                                              (1.) Arnoldo De León, They Called Them Greasers: Anglo Attitudes toward Mexicans in Texas, 1821–1900 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983).

                                              (2.) Rubén Donato, The Other Struggle for Equal Schools: Mexican Americans During the Civil Rights Movement (New York: State University of New York Press, 1997).

                                              (3.) Brian D. Behnken, Fighting Their Own Battles: Mexican Americans, African Americans, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Texas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

                                              (4.) Lisa Y. Ramos, “Not Similar Enough: Mexican American and African American Civil Rights Struggles in the 1940s,” in The Struggle in Black and Brown: African American and Mexican American Relations during the Civil Rights Era, edited by Brian D. Behnken (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012).

                                              (5.) Peggy Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 205–230.

                                              (6.) Neil Foley, The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

                                              (7.) Laura E. Gómez, Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race (New York: New York University Press, 2007).

                                              (8.) Behnken, Fighting Their Own Battles, 62–63.

                                              (9.) Ignacio M. García, White But Not Equal: Mexican Americans, Jury Discrimination, and the Supreme Court (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2009).

                                              (10.) Behnken, Fighting Their Own Battles, 215.

                                              (11.) Lauren Araiza, To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

                                              (12.) Lauren Araiza, “Complicating the Beloved Community: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the National Farm Workers Association,” in The Struggle in Black and Brown, edited by Brian D. Behnken (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012).

                                              (13.) Laura Pulido, Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

                                              (14.) Araiza, To March for Others.

                                              (15.) Virginia E. Sánchez-Korrol, From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Miguel “Mickey” Melendez, We Took the Streets: Fighting for Latino Rights with the Young Lords (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005).

                                              (16.) Sonia Song-Ha Lee, Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement: Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

                                              (19.) Jakobi Williams, From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

                                              (21.) Lauri Lahey, “‘Justice Now!, ¡Justicia Ahora!’ African American-Puerto Rican Radicalism in Camden, New Jersey,” in Civil Rights and Beyond: African American and Latino/a Activism in the Twentieth-Century United States, edited by Brian D. Behnken (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016).

                                              (22.) María Cristina García, Havana USA: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida, 1959–1994 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997).

                                              (24.) Chanelle Nyree Rose, The Struggle for Black Freedom in Miami: Civil Rights and America’s Tourist Paradise, 1896–1968 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015).

                                              (25.) Ibid.; Chanelle Nyree Rose, “Beyond 1959: Cuban Exiles, Race, and Miami's Black Freedom Struggle,” in Civil Rights and Beyond, edited by Brian D. Behnken (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016).

                                              (26.) Gordon K. Mantler, Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960–1974 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

                                              (27.) Gordon K. Mantler, “Black, Brown, and Poor: Civil Rights and the Making of the Chicano Movement,” in The Struggle in Black and Brown, edited by Brian D. Behnken (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 165.

                                              (29.) Mantler, Power to the Poor.

                                              (32.) Behnken, Fighting Their Own Battles, 151.

                                              (33.) Mantler, Power to the Poor.