NCLR traces its origins to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, as well as to previous efforts that preceded World War II, such as those related to early school and housing desegregation. Although Hispanics, especially Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans, participated in both movements, they did not gain widespread media coverage or national visibility for their efforts. Without such recognition, legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, while creating enormous change in other areas of the country, had relatively little impact on the Hispanic community.
In large part, the invisibility that plagued the Mexican American civil rights movement was a result of the movement’s geographic isolation, which caused it to be overshadowed by the more highly visible national movements. Additionally, Mexican Americans lacked the kinds of institutions that were critical to the success of the Black civil rights movement, and around which they could rally, unify, and organize. As Helen Rowan explained in a paper prepared for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1968:
There was no Mexican American organization equivalent of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) or the National Urban League; no Mexican American colleges; and virtually no financial or other help from outside the community itself. It has thus been extremely difficult for the leadership to develop and pursue strategies which would force public agencies and institutions to pay greater and more intelligent attention to Mexican American needs and to make changes, where necessary, to meet them.Recognizing that these hurdles imposed a critical barrier to the mobilization of an effective civil rights movement, a group of young Mexican Americans in Washington, DC decided to form a coordinating body that could provide technical assistance to existing Hispanic groups and bring them together into a single united front. In the early 1960s, this organization, called NOMAS (National Organization for Mexican American Services), met with the Ford Foundation to present a funding proposal. The meeting was one of several factors that contributed to a Ford decision to finance a major study of Mexican Americans by scholars at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), the first grant of its kind in the United States.
Like other philanthropic and government entities, the Ford Foundation was concerned about the paucity of information on, and its own lack of expertise regarding, Mexican Americans. In this context, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights began to hold a series of important and influential hearings on the status of Mexican Americans, and later other Latino groups, in the U.S. At the same time, the Ford Foundation decided to conduct a second, less academic and formal investigation, and subsequently hired three highly-respected Mexican Americans, Herman Gallegos, Dr. Julian Samora, and Dr. Ernesto Galarza, to travel throughout the Southwest and consult with other activists and leaders about what else might be done to help the Mexican American community.
The findings of these three leaders, published in two reports, revealed that Mexican Americans faced numerous obstacles, especially with respect to poverty. They also illustrated a clear need for more local, grassroots programmatic and advocacy organizations, for a source of ongoing technical assistance to help coordinate and strengthen the work of these local groups, and for national advocacy on behalf of Mexican Americans.