ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — As thousands of marchers made their way to the nation's capital in August 1963 for what was officially billed as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Maria Varela stayed put in the Deep South with no plans to participate.
Many of her fellow activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee felt the march was largely symbolic and would do little to change things, Varela said. She continued her work in Alabama, and eventually moved on to Mississippi.
"A lot of us in SNCC did not support the march at the time," said Varela, 73, who now lives in Albuquerque. "So we were going to have this huge gathering of people. Then what?"
Latinos were scarce among the 250,000 people who turned out in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, mainly because they were caught up in pursuing their own causes. Some of the larger Hispanic civil rights organizations even considered publicly denouncing the mass protest. But after seeing the heavily black throngs gathered around the Lincoln Memorial they learned some lessons from that show of political force, historians say.
"They were uncomfortable with marches. But that was about to change," said Iowa State University history professor Brian Behnken, author of a book on the civil rights struggles of blacks and Mexican Americans in Texas. A big factor in the lack of large-scale Hispanic participation, Behnken said, was that groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens simply had not quite evolved to such a level of national protest.
"Eventually, a new movement would emerge," Behnken said. "And new coalitions would form."
The national march didn't go entirely unmarked by Hispanics. A coalition of black and Mexican Americans held a companion march on that same day in Austin, Texas, which drew roughly 900 people, according to the Texas State Historical Association. The marchers, including Hispanics, blacks and whites, protested Gov. John Connally's opposition to civil rights legislation pending in Congress.