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"We served in World War II and Korea, and we deserved to be treated with respect," Benny Martinez. Photo: apnews.com
"We served in World War II and Korea, and we deserved to be treated with respect," Benny Martinez. Photo: apnews.com

Benny Martinez, the iconic Latino civil rights activist in the U.S., passed away at 85

The Mexican-American leader helped organize a historic meeting with President John F. Kennedy.

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He was 85 and had devoted much of his life to defending the civil rights of Latino Americans. Perhaps that's why he left this world with the peace of mind that he had done everything in his power for a community that has gone through very difficult times to achieve a status of equality and visibility in this country. 

Benny Martinez died of natural causes—and after dealing with several illnesses—last Sunday in Olmito, in his native Texas, his daughter, Loretta Martinez Williams, told AP.

Born in Goliad, Texas, Martinez attended segregated schools for Mexican-Americans until his family moved to Houston so his children "wouldn't have to pick cotton to live." 

He was also a war veteran, and served the U.S. Army as a doctor in Korea. Upon his return, he organized numerous boycotts and protests against companies that refused to hire Mexican-American citizens. 

As a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the nation's largest Latino rights organization, he advocated for his peers to be able to vote in elections by raising funds.

They say no one dies completely until he is forgotten, and there is no doubt that Benny Martinez will live forever in the memory of American Latinos.

"We served in World War II and Korea, and we deserved to be treated with respect," he told AP in 2013. "The time of silence was over."

The glory came in 1963 when, as a registered nurse, Martinez joined civil rights attorney John J. Herrera in organizing a special LULAC gala for President John F. Kennedy during his trip to Texas, the night before the president was assassinated in Dallas. 

Historians agree that this was the first meeting of a president with a Latino civil rights group.

"I couldn't shake his hand, but I could reach out and touch his shoulder," Martinez said. "The next day, I was crying.

As a retired man, Benny Martinez continued working to improve the lives of Hispanics, raising funds to provide scholarships for students to attend college.

They say no one dies completely until he is forgotten, and there is no doubt that Benny Martinez will live forever in the memory of U.S. Latinos as an example of political and social commitment.

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