John J. Herrera, lawyer and civil rights leader, son of Juan José Herrera, a descendant of the Canary Islanders, and Antonia Jiménez, was born on April 12, 1910, in Cravens, Louisiana, where his father, a former San Antonio policeman, was sheriff. His great-great-grandfather was José Francisco Ruiz, and his great-grandfather was Blas Herrera, Texas army scout during the Texas Revolution. In 1934 Herrera graduated from Sam Houston High School in Houston, where his speech teacher was Lyndon B. Johnson. While working as a laborer and taxi driver, he received an LL.B. at South Texas Law School in 1940 and passed the bar in 1943.
With Gustavo C. García, Herrera won two landmark civil rights cases, Delgado vs. Bastrop Independent School District (1948), which declared the school segregation of Hispanics illegal, and Pete Hernández vs. Texas (1954), the first Hispanic civil-rights case argued before the United States Supreme Court; this case first applied the Fourteenth Amendment to Hispanics and ruled unconstitutional the practice of systematically excluding them from juries. Herrera's efforts resulted in the practice of naming World War II Liberty ships for Latin American heroes. As the first Hispanic political candidate in Harris County (1947), he ran unsuccessfully four times for the legislature (1947–58). He organized twelve unions. He addressed civic and ethnic organizations to promote community understanding. During the Vietnam era he served on draft boards.
As a Latin American Club officer, he successfully opposed discriminatory treatment of Hispanic municipal employees in Houston in the 1930s. Herrera revived the dormant League of United Latin American Citizens Council 60 in Houston in 1939. He filed the first complaint of discrimination in Texas (1943) with the President's Employment Practice Commission, a move that resulted in the hiring of members of minorities for skilled Gulf Coast war-industries jobs. As a local, district, and national LULAC officer, Herrera organized fifty-three new councils in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. As national LULAC president (1952–53) he initiated greater cooperation with the American G.I. Forum. He was also national LULAC legal advisor from the 1960s to 1977.
Herrera was a member of the State Bar of Texas, the American Bar Association, and the Sons of the Republic of Texas. He was legal advisor for Imagen de Texas, incorporator of SER (Jobs for Progress), dean of the Mexican American Bar Association (Houston), a Catholic, and a lifelong Democrat. He was active in local, state, and national campaigns, an original member of Texas Viva Kennedy clubs, and cochairman of the Houston Viva Johnson Club. For his civil-rights achievements he received a G.I. Forum lifetime honorary membership; the Hispanic community honored him in 1977, 1980, and 1986. In 1943 Herrera married Olivia Cisneros; they had six children. After a divorce, he married Carmen Luisa García of Bolivia in 1972; they had one son. After a stroke in 1985, Herrera died in Houston on October 12, 1986.