March 1, 2005, 1:09AM
Minority Groups 'Fighting as One'
NAACP, LULAC align in symbiotic, and sometimes strained, pursuit of common goals
By LORI RODRIGUEZ
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
NAACP • What: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
• Mission: To ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination
• Members: 500,000
LULAC • What: League of United Latin American Citizens
• Mission: To advance the economic condition, educational attainment, political influence, health and civil rights of the Hispanic population of the United States
• Members: 150,000
At the NAACP annual convention in Houston three years ago, Hector Flores, the newly elected national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, led delegates in rousing chants of "Viva NAACP!" and "Viva LULAC!"
A few weeks earlier, at the annual meeting of LULAC, also in Houston, Latino leaders gave the group's highest award to pioneer activist Howard Jefferson, then president of the Houston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Both events were unprecedented. But for the two granddaddies of civil rights organizations, they also went far beyond the obvious symbolism. The occasions marked a growing awareness between the two groups that they are stronger united than they are divided.
The groups took the idea further on Monday in Austin, when LULAC state director Roger Rocha and Texas NAACP President Gary Bledsoe stood side by side on the steps of the Capitol during a rally with 100 members of their organizations.
"We are here together as two organizations, fighting as one," said Rocha. "Everything we've worked so hard for will not go silently into the night."
Bledsoe described Hispanics and blacks as "communities under siege."
"When we look at what affects our communities the most, we understand that the big issues are discrimination issues," he told the rally.
After the rally, the groups moved to practical politics, canvassing the corridors of the Capitol and meeting with legislators formally and informally on issues such as health care and racial profiling.
"Some people would like for there to be competition between African-Americans and Hispanics, but there is none. We are affected by the same issues," NAACP Houston chapter executive director Yolanda Smith said recently in reflecting on the coalition and the trip to Austin. "The principle is that what affects you affects me, and what affects me affects you. What might be happening to the African-American community now may not be happening to the Hispanic community, but it's going to."
Monday's legislative mobilization day combined the clout of two of the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organizations. It also marked an increasingly tight coalition between leaders of two groups that, more often now than not, are lobbying together.
When LULAC leaders protested changes to the law giving automatic state college admission to high school seniors in the top 10 percent of their classes, NAACP was there. When NAACP leaders decried possible changes in the administration of three Houston high schools, LULAC was there.
But the coalition is not perfect.
An undercurrent of tension between black leaders and new Houston Independent School District Superintendent Abe Saavedra, the first Hispanic to hold the post, has added to the controversy over the school reform plan.
And last year, long-simmering resentments over which minority group gets a bigger share of public assistance money boiled over when Hispanics protested the departure of D.V. "Sonny" Flores from the Harris County Housing Authority board. Flores had noted that 82 percent of clients on the federally funded housing voucher rolls were black and only 8 percent were Hispanic.
When Janie Reyes, former personnel director for Harris County, was appointed to the Metro board three years ago, her first official action was to ask for a work force report. Reyes found that as of July 2003, 60.8 percent of Metro employees were black, 17 percent were Anglo and 14.5 percent were Hispanic.
In Houston and across the country, blacks still hold much of the minority political power. The 2000 Census revealed Hispanics are Houston's largest ethnic group and since have overtaken blacks as the nation's largest minority population.
"There's still a potential for that tug-of-war that we just don't need," said veteran political consultant Marc Campos, who ran the campaign for the Hispanic vote during former Mayor Lee Brown's historic first run in 1997. "There's an ugliness out there," he noted, speaking of Hispanic opposition to Brown, who became Houston's first black mayor.
"There is an old guard in both communities that would like to play up a fight between us. But there are also a lot of big forces that overshadow those who try to create a split," Campos said.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis and Houston City Councilwoman Carol Alvarado, both political powerhouses in their communities, ride bicycles together every Saturday, Campos noted. U.S. Rep. Al Green, whose Houston district is one-third Hispanic, often marches side by side with LULAC activist Johnny Mata.
Green, president emeritus of the Houston NAACP, says black and Latino relations have been evolving since the late U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland forged a tight bond with former City Councilman Ben T. Reyes; both had won state House seats after single-member legislative districts were created in the early 1970s.
Three years ago, Jefferson and Bledsoe journeyed to Laredo to address the LULAC state convention. Along with former national President Rick Dovalina and Mata, they proposed a formal agreement to work together on common issues and goals. The resolution passed and now codifies the relationship.
"What we said is that we would not always agree but we've got to agree to find some common ground. Let's agree not to agree sometimes and still work on those things," said Jefferson, chairman of the Texas NAACP political action committee. "Surprisingly, we have not had any significant disagreement on issues since."