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In the midst of the Cold War in 1951, the Robert Marshall Civil Liberties Trust tried to help set up a leadership organization of Mexican American civil rights activists. Though keen to galvanize “Spanish Americans” into an organization akin to the NAACP, the Marshall Trust’s vision of civil rights activism differed from those at the grass roots.

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At those grass roots in the American West, there was a history of “class and political conflict between Latino communities and the state over the previous century,” writes scholar Genevieve G. Carpio. This history put activists somewhat at odds with their top-down, New York City-based funders.

Carpio details the resulting “philanthropic paternalism,” arguing that

unequal power relations undermined philanthropists’ efforts to advance social equity. Although seeking common objectives, well-meaning philanthropists dismissed Latino histories of collective action and adopted racialized assumptions that supposed white liberals held superior organizing strategies.

The Marshall Trust was one of the few philanthropic funders of Mexican American civil rights struggles in the 1940s and 1950s. The Ford Foundation’s Fund for the Republic, which became the most notable source of foundation funding for civil rights after 1952, didn’t committee to Mexican American causes until the mid-1960s.

Contextually, the Cold War climate meant that all funders of democracy-expansion worked cautiously, in fear that they be labeled as communists or communist sympathizers themselves, or, perhaps worst of all, communist dupes. Even the ACLU trimmed its sails under the McCarthyite assault on democracy. ACLU founder Roger Baldwin was one of the Marshall Trust’s trustees.

At the same time,“high-profile cases of racial discrimination against Mexican American youth exacerbated Cold War tensions,” particularly in Central and South America, where the US was trying to win hearts and minds. Soviet propaganda about American civil rights hypocrisies hit home hard, pushing both the US government and private foundations to action. The Marshall Trust, set up by the will of the noted conservationist and “self-identified socialist” Bob Marshall, decided to adopt “the equity of Latinos/as as a central part of its mission” in 1947.

“Even if well intentioned in its commitment, the Marshall Trust neither systematically informed itself of Latinos’ organizing history nor recognized the racial privilege at play,” writes Carpio. The distance between the New York City-based foundation and the Western locations of the organizations funded wasn’t just geographic. The check-signers “favored legal activism over labor or political orientated collective action.” They privileged centralized leadership over decentralized activism.

Among other organizations, the Trust funded the Alianza Hispano-Americana (AHA), the Community Service Organization (CSO), and the Texas Civil Rights Fund. In 1951, it helped found the American Council of Spanish-Speaking People (ACSSP). But the “Trust’s focus on Mexican Americans strategically postponed a broader Latino civil rights movement,” meaning the ACSSP didn’t really live up to it name by including Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and other Spanish-speakers. ACSSP didn’t last the decade, petering out by 1958.

Carpio stresses that the “while the Trust may have failed to sustain an organization dedicated to the cause of of Latino civil liberties” it was nevertheless a vital funder and catalyst to the cause during a time chillingly “hostile to collective action.” “Many of the most-recognized leaders in Mexican American activism” were funded by the Trust, as were several of era’s landmark anti-discrimination court cases.

But when the the Trust found “their own efforts were unsuccessful” they concluded that “Mexican Americans were unable to promote their own self-interest.”

“Debates between trustees and activists,” writes Carpio, “reveal the strengths and limits of philanthropic support within leftist movements.”

With philanthropic funding arguably even more powerful today, conflicts between funders and the funded aren’t just of historical interest.

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Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Autumn 2016), pp. 303–323
Oxford University Press