July 19, 2013
DALLAS (SMU) — Forty years after 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez was killed during a Dallas Police officer’s Russian roulette-style interrogation, SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program will pay tribute to him by co-sponsoring multicultural events encouraging racial tolerance, accountability and justice.
White officer Darrell Cain’s light prison sentence inflamed the Latino community, especially after fingerprints proved that Santos and his brother were innocent of the $8 vandalism of a soft drink machine. Cain was convicted of murder without malice in state court for killing the pajama-clad Santos with a .357 Magnum while trying to coerce a confession from the handcuffed boy in the front seat of his patrol car.
“Santos’ story represents one of the worst cases of racism with impunity that white law enforcement officers could enact against people of color,” says Embrey Human Rights Program Director Rick Halperin. “The City of Dallas has never apologized to Santos’ family, and many are determined to see that change. There can be no healing for his family or this city without recognition of wrongdoing.”
Cain’s conviction in Santos’ murder occurred on the heels of his involvement in the fatal shooting of unarmed black teen-ager Michael Moorehead. (Cain’s role in that crime was considered by a grand jury, which declined to indict him.) When U.S. Attorney General Griffin Bell opted to not prosecute Cain in federal court, then-President Jimmy Carter tried unsuccessfully to intervene. In a letter to Santos’ mother, Bessie Rodriguez, dated Aug. 17, 1978, the president wrote, “The brutality and senselessness of the murder is reprehensible,’ and he was “deeply concerned and moved” by the case.
“If anything positive can be said about the tragedy, it’s that it was a wake-up call, one that served as a catalyst for sweeping policy change in Dallas,” Halperin says, noting the city’s subsequent introduction of racial sensitivity classes, bilingual education and increased hiring of Latino and African American police officers.
Rene Martinez, an SMU alumnus (’69) who oversees the District 3 chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), was one of the organizers of a related 1973 protest that drew an estimated 5,000 civil rights supporters. “There was never any question that I, and so many others, would get involved. Santos’ murder was in our neighborhood,” he says, referring to the once-thriving area near downtown known as “Little Mexico” that was torn down to make way for Dallas’ “Uptown” region.
Martinez says the rally was planned as a peaceful event, but near-triple-digit temperatures and heated tempers resulted in violence. Five police officers were hospitalized and many downtown business storefronts were damaged. “Dallas was in a lot of turmoil then,” he says. “School desegregation measures were taking place, and attacks by and on the police left tensions running high.”
The rally “had a chilling impact on the city,” Martinez says, noting that at the time Latinos made up only 8 percent of the population (as compared to nearly 40 percent in 2012) – and “the strength of our efforts truly resonated.”
As Dallas marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Halperin says it is important to remember the legacy of another horrific killing.
“Kennedy’s assassination was indeed a national tragedy, but its effects did not change the day-to-day operations of this city,” he says. “Santos’ shooting marked a paradigm shift when minority communities came together to demand, and attain, change for the better.”
For more details, contact SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program at 214-768-8347 or firstname.lastname@example.org.