By Jim Tortolano
The road to the triumph of the civil rights movement in America in the Sixties traveled through Orange County in the Forties.
Most history books point out the significance of Brown vs. Board of Education, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1954, which declared that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. But the lesser-known Mendez vs. Westminster in many ways paved the way for that ruling.
And, ironically, it was an act of racial discrimination against a different minority that helped make this pivotal lawsuit possible.
It all started in 1943 in an era when Orange County was an overwhelmingly white, and famously conservative rural stronghold. Four local school districts – El Modena, Garden Grove, Santa Ana and Westminster – made a practice of segregating Mexican children into separate schools.
The Mendez family moved from Santa Ana to Westminster, leasing a rancho owned by a Japanese-American family, which had been interned in Arizona as a consequence of war hysteria after Pearl Harbor.
They were told that the Mendez children – sons Gonzalo, Jr., Jerome and daughter Sylvia – could not enroll in the nearby 17th Street School (on present-day Westminster Boulevard) instead had to attend the Hoover School, where the Mexican kids were sent.
Rebuffed by the Orange County Department of Education, parents Gonzalo and Felicitas hired a Los Angeles attorney to sue the WSD in federal court. The class action lawsuit was enlarged to include all the local districts that practiced the segregation, and it was filed on March 2, 1945. Four other families joined the suit, which was supported by several civil rights groups including the NAACP and the ACLU.
What followed was not the finest day for local public schools. The Garden Grove superintendent, for instance, testified in court that Mexican students needed separation from white kids because they were unable to compete academically with the lighter-skinned pupils.
At that time, the law of the land on segregation was still Plessy vs. Ferguson, where the Supreme Court in 1896 upheld the concept of “separate but equal” in public schools. But the Mendez’ attorney argued that the facilities and supplies for Mexican kids were inferior and therefore not “equal.”
On March 18, 1946, Judge Paul McCormick ruled for Mendez and the other plaintiffs. The local schools appealed the decision to 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, but the ruling was upheld.
As a consequence, Gov. Earl Warren pushed the California Legislature to also ban segregation of Asian and Native American children in schools. Warren would later become chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and presided over Brown vs. Board of Education.
One of the “friend of the court” briefs in Mendez v. Westminster was written by the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall, who would also argue in the Brown case, and was later appointed to the high court by President Lyndon Johnson.
In recent years, historians have begun focusing more attention on Mendez as an important precursor to Brown, and the end of legal racial segregation in the United States. A postage stamp has been issued to commemorate the case, and an Emmy-winning TV documentary filmed and aired.
An elementary school in Santa Ana has been named after the Mendez family, and in 2011 Sylvia – that 9-year-old girl barred from the “white” school in 1943 – was honored by President Barack Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Sources: Wikipedia, Long Beach Press Telegram, sylviamendezinthemendezvswestminster.com, and others.