Mendez v. Westminster: desegregating California schools

mendez.jpg Tomorrow, February 18, marks the 60th anniversary of an important school desegregation case. No, it is not Brown v. Board, and the segregated schools in question were not located in the south or midwest.

This legal challenge occurred in California eight years prior to Brown v. Board. The Mendez v. Westminster (1946) case challenged the segregation of white and Mexican students in Westminster, Garden Grove and El Modeno school districts. It was the first time ever that a judge wrote an opinion stating that separate is never equal.

“On March 2, 1945, five Mexican-American fathers, Gonzalo Mendez, Thomas Estrada, William Guzman, Frank Palomino, and Lorenzo Ramirez, challenged the practice of school segregation in the Ninth Federal District Court in Los Angeles. They claimed that their children and 5,000 other children of “Mexican and Latin descent” were victims of unconstitutional discrimination by being forced to attend separate “Mexican” schools in the Westminster, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, and El Modeno school districts of Orange County.

Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled in favor of Mendez and his co-plaintiffs on February 18, 1946, and more than a year later, on April 14, 1947, McCormick’s ruling was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal in San Francisco. On June 14 of the same year, Governor Earl Warren signed into law a repeal of the last remaining school segregation statutes in the California Education Code. Thus did “separate but equal” end in California schools and with it ended de jure school segregation, legally and administratively enforced separation of racial and national groups in the public education system. Judge McCormick’s decision reflects significant social and intellectual movements which produced a remarkable change in educational and judicial attitudes on matters of segregation and race during the 1930’s and 1940s. The Mendez case is equally important as a part of the history of Mexican and Mexican-American people in the United States and their experience in Anglo-American schools.”

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Additionally, the court held that segregating Mexican children in a separate school went against the social equality purpose of public education because it was not open to all. Segregated schooling would retard the English-language skills and learning of Mexican children. The court also spoke to the positive benefits of commingling and suggested that segregation fosters antagonisms and suggests inferiority among the childnre where none exists.

I think it’s a shame that I didn’t learn about Mendez v. Westminster until I got to college. I went to a California school and learned about civil rights and school desegregation. Perhaps this case was not in my history books because it was much more limited in scope than Brown v. Board and civil rights are frequently viewed as a black and white issue.

Sylvia Mendez, the daughter of the Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez (pictured above), wants to make the case more well known and continue the work that her father began. She wants teachers to teach this alongside Brown v. Board in discussions on civil rights and desegregation.

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