SAN ANTONIO – Albert A. Peña Jr., a four-term Bexar County commissioner and civil rights activist who fought for desegregation in South Texas schools, has died at age 88.
Peña, of San Antonio, died Monday of natural causes, said John Delgado, owner of the Angelus Funeral Home.
Known as a scrappy politician, Peña broke with the Democratic Party when he urged Mexican Americans to vote for write-in candidates of the La Raza Unida Party. He was the state’s first public official to denounce the Vietnam War.
“I’m conditioned to opposition,” Peña once said, according to the San Antonio Express-News. “Anybody who disturbs the status quo and convulses the establishment is going to get opposition.”
Peña was elected to the Bexar County Commissioners Court in 1956 and served four consecutive four-year terms.
He lost a re-election bid in 1972 when he defended the right of Angela Davis, a black Communist Party member and assistant professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, to a fair trial.
“People may have agreed with me or disagreed — hated me or loved me — but they always knew where I stood,” Peña said when he left office.
Peña was born Dec. 15, 1917, in San Antonio, attended local schools and served in the military before obtaining a law degree in 1950 from South Texas School of Law in Houston. He returned home and joined his family’s law firm of Peña, Peña & Peña.
Peña volunteered services in school desegregation cases in the early 1950s. He worked with others to integrate schools in Hondo, Lytle and Natalia.
Peña was appointed a municipal court judge in 1977 and became a presiding judge six years later.
Peña also was an organizer for the United Automobile Workers in San Antonio, and a founder of the Mexican American Unity Council and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Peña urged Mexican Americans to fight against poverty and racism at home rather than serve in the Vietnam War. “Asked to die in Vietnam, the Chicano returns to the same blighted barrio and discrimination,” he said. “Support of the war by Chicanos, other minorities or working people in general, is the worst form of lunacy.”
Mass was Friday at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, with burial at Fort Sam Houston.
UPDATE: He then became a Bexar County Commissioner in 1956. In that position he would utilize that platform to speak out over social injustice, poor legislation and inequitable practices of others. He joined LULAC in its early days and the American G.I. Forum. He also helped form the VIVA Kennedy Clubs which helped to elect President John F. Kennedy. The organization evolved into a political action group for Mexican Americans in South Texas. It was called PASO – Political Association of Spanish speaking Organizations. He also helped form the Mexican American Unity Council known as MAUC and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund known as MALDEF. He was also part of the formation of Southwest Council of La Raza.
He helped organize the SASA boycott committee in 1971 in protest of statements made by then Mayor WW McAllister which were derogatory towards people of Mexican descent in which McAllister stated that Mexicans were not ambitious people. He and other civil rights leaders were arrested for this picketing. The boycott urged all these “Mexicans without ambition” to withdraw their money and many of them did.
He was involved in a nationwide petition drive to free Angela Davis, a college professor who was denied due process of law. She was a professor at UCLA and a professed Black Communist party member. This denied her a right to a fair trail. After civil rights legislation that prohibited discrimination was passed in 1965 Albert was the first to file a discrimination lawsuit in the state of Texas on behalf of a client.
Albert and his good friend G J Sutton, a state legislator at the time and Black east side leader, were the first minorities to enter Joskes Department store in downtown San Antonio to request seating at the Camilia Room, a restaurant known for restriction to minorities. After a lengthy wait for service their order was finally taken and their food served. They ate their meal and departed. The Joskes Camilia room was never the same as this set a precedent that ended discrimination at this establishment.
Another incident involving G J Sutton involved the Democratic convention of 1960 in Los Angeles in which Mr. Sutton was denied access to the convention hall, however, Albert and other delegates challenged the security people and encouraged them to recognize his proper credentials and thus they allowed him access.
He was appointed a Municipal Court Judge in April 1977. Six years later he was appointed as the Presiding Judge of the Municipal Courts in San Antonio. In 1991 allegations of improprieties at the court were made and Judge Pena went to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct and assisted them in the investigation of the allegations. Allegations against him were determined to be unfounded. He retired in 1992 for Municipal Court. He semi-retired and practiced some law. Awards received since his retirement include 1999 Mexican American Unity Council Lifetime Achievement Award, 2001 Bexar County Democrats Lifetime Achievement Award, 2001 Martin Luther King Jr. Commission Chairman Lifetime Achievement, 2002 Cesar Chavez March Lifetime Achievement Award, ACLU Lifetime Achievement Award.
UPDATE: The family requests that in lieu of flowers that donations be made to the Albert Pena Memorial Scholarship Fund held at Mexican American Unity Council, 2300 W Commerce, Suite 200, San Antonio, TX 78207. Condolences may be sent to the Pena family at http://www.theangelusfuneralhome.com. Arrangements by The Angelus Funeral Home.