On March 26, 1948, 700 Mexican-American veterans, led by Hector P. Garcia, met in Corpus Christi and organized the American G.I. Forum, a civil-rights organization devoted to securing equal rights for Hispanic Americans. The first issue the forum dealt with was the failure of the Veterans Administration to deliver earned benefits through the G.I. Bill of Rights of 1944. After securing those benefits, the forum addressed other veterans' concerns, such as hospital care and Mexican-American representation on draft boards. In 1949 the director of the Rice Funeral Home in Three Rivers refused the use of his chapel for the funeral of Private Felix Longoria (see FELIX LONGORIA AFFAIR). Garcia and the Corpus Christi forum organized a widespread protest that gained national attention. Eventually, through the intervention of Lyndon B. Johnson, Longoria was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The incident in Three Rivers established the forum as an effective civil-rights advocate for Hispanics and expanded the scope and nature of its activities.
The organizational structure promoted this goal. The local chapter was the basic unit; the membership of each local chapter had to be 75 percent veterans. Beyond the local chapter were the district, state, and (after 1958) national governing bodies. In some areas, auxiliary (female) and junior G.I. forums developed. The charter of each unit emphasized loyalty and patriotism. The forum also prohibited official endorsement of a political party or candidate. This sanction blunted possible charges of bloc voting. Skills and experience developed in the forum were, however, applied by members in political campaigns.
In 1954 forum lawyers, in conjunction with attorneys for the League of United Latin American Citizens, successfully argued before the Supreme Court in Hernandez v. the State of Texas that Mexican Americans, although technically classified as Caucasian, suffered discrimination as a class and were entitled to the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1957 the Texas forum ended a ten-year struggle when a federal court agreed that school segregation of Mexican-American children in Texas schools was unjustified. In the same decade the forum helped thousands of Mexican Americans in the Rio Grande valley to register to vote, and incidents of police brutality were confronted in forum efforts. Health care and veterans' needs remained important concerns, as did scholarship donations, back-to-school drives, and the problems of migrant workers.
In 1958 the American G.I. Forum became a national organization, and its members led Mexican Americans into national politics. In the 1960 presidential campaign Viva Kennedy-Viva Johnson clubs, administered by forum and LULAC leaders, helped to win Texas and New Mexico for John F. Kennedy. Robert Kennedy stated that the Spanish-speaking vote won the election for his brother. Although the Kennedy administration did not reciprocate with much federal aid, the Johnson administration did. The G.I. Forum played a significant role in the application of Great Society programs in the barrios, and for the first time Latin Americans were appointed to influential positions and agencies. When Johnson established the first cabinet-level office for Hispanic issues, he selected a former national chairman of the G.I. Forum, Vicente Ximenes, for the position. The American G.I. Forum continued its work through the 1970s with such efforts as the first application of the due-process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to de facto Mexican-American school segregation in Corpus Christi. In 1983 Garcia received an award for distinguished accomplishment from President Ronald Reagan.