Dan Lund, for the Deseret Morning News
BYU professor Ignacio Garcia is writing a book about the Hernandez case.

PROVO — He's the forgotten man at the center of a historic yet unheralded Supreme Court decision that should be better known as a milestone for the nation's largest minority group.

It's fitting then that Pete Hernandez is missing.

He would be in his late 70s today — the 50th anniversary of Hernandez v. Texas — as May 1954 repeats itself: The case is obscured now just as it was then by national discussion of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark civil rights case handed down two weeks after Hernandez.

Hernandez and Brown should have been considered twin legal towers of civil rights law, say many legal scholars and historians, but no newspaper writers reported on the Hernandez hearing, which also wasn't taped.

The case gained none of the notoriety Brown continues to enjoy, despite a long list of historic firsts — the first time Latino lawyers argued before the Supreme Court, the first time 14th Amendment protections were extended to minorities other than blacks, the first civil rights decision by the Warren Court.

"It's like opening for the Rolling Stones," said Brigham Young University history professor Ignacio Garcia, who is writing a book about Pete Hernandez and the case that bears his name. "The court, within two weeks in May 1954, strikes blows against all kinds of discrimination, but nobody remembers the opening act.

"Had Hernandez and Brown been tied together, it would have been a clear message that there's no way you're going to get around discriminating against anybody."

But the country then, as it in some ways remains now, was focused on black-white relations, not Latinos, who were considered whites by Texas.

That's how Anglo-American Texans justified the practice of excluding Latinos from jury service at the time Hernandez shot and killed another Mexican-American in front of 40 witnesses in a bar in Jackson County, Texas.

The court, without ruling on whether Mexican-Americans were a separate race, concluded they were "a class apart" and that the 14th Amendment granted equal protection to any group facing discrimination.

"Hernandez gets something right that Brown doesn't — the legal basis for when the Constitution should support a group," said Ian Haney Lopez, author of "Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice." "The Supreme Court didn't hold that they are a race. It determined that any group deserves protection depending on how it is seen and treated locally," he said.

New Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing the unanimous decision, said, "When the existence of a distinct class is demonstrated, and it is further shown that the laws, as written or as applied, single out that class for different treatment not based on some reasonable classification, the guarantees of the Constitution have been violated. The Fourteenth Amendment is not directed solely against discrimination . . . based upon differences between 'white' and Negro."

Now that Latinos are the largest minority group in the United States, the ruling in the Hernandez case takes on increased historical significance, Haney Lopez said.

"And more than any other Supreme Court decision," he said, "Hernandez outlines the practice of white supremacy against Mexican-Americans."

Examples, he said, included signs outside restaurants reading "No Mexicans Served," segregated bathrooms — "Hombres Aqui"— or segregated schools and civic associations.

"It's clear Mexican-Americans were a subordinated, oppressed group. It's a surprisingly obscure case, given that it's part and parcel of the Supreme Court's effort to dismantle Jim Crow."

Legal scholars assumed Brown handled most of the issues of discrimination, so Hernandez fell by the wayside. But neither Brown nor Hernandez had the impact many hoped for because, as some see it, American society hasn't embraced the Warren Court's decisions, said Michael Olivas, a law professor at the University of Houston.

E-mail: twalch@desnews.com