In a new report released today by the Immigration Policy Center, Before Brown, There was Mendez: The Lasting Impact of Mendez v. Westminster in the Struggle for Desegregation, author Maria Blanco examines the impact of a federal circuit court’s 1947 decision which found the segregation of Mexican American school children in California unconstitutional. It is fitting that Blanco, who is the Executive Director of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute at Berkeley Law, wrote this paper because of the key role that Justice Warren played in both the Mendez and Brown cases. Before Brown, There was Mendez tells a unique story of an immigrant family as well as the story of the people who came together to support them and make history. The Mendez family story alone is an amazing tale of strength and perseverance in the face of discrimination and bigotry.
Gonzalo Mendez, his wife Felicitas and their three children lived in California in the 1930s. The Mendezes came to the U.S. as immigrants, worked in the cotton fields and citrus groves, and eventually became small business owners. Then, in an amazing historical twist, they leased a farm in Westminster, CA, from the Minemitsu family, Japanese-Americans who were interned. Yet rather than being allowed to attend the “white” school closest to their farm, the Mendez children were told they must attend the “Mexican” school. The location of the Minemitsu farm placed the Mendez family within close proximity of the “White” school in Westminster, but the Mendez children—Sylvia, Gonzalo, Jr., and Geronimo—were denied enrollment and informed they must attend the Mexican school. Unwilling to accept such overt discrimination, the Mendez family and other parents eventually filed Mendez v. Westminster in federal court in 1945. With the help of good attorneys, as well as Latino, African American, and Asian civil rights organizations, the Mendezes successfully challenged the notion of “separate but equal.” Unlike other lawsuits of the era, the Mendez plaintiffs did not argue that their segregated schools were unconstitutionally inferior; instead they opposed segregation itself as violating the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause. Judge Paul McCormick concluded that “segregation fostered antagonisms in the children and suggests inferiority among them where none exists.”
The Mendezes hired David Marcus, a Los Angeles civil rights attorney, to argue their case. When the decision was appealed, Marcus joined forces with an attorney named Thurgood Marshall, who was counsel for the NAACP. Later Marshall would successfully argue the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case before the U.S. Supreme Court and eventually become the first African American Justice on the Supreme Court. After the Ninth Circuit struck down the segregated Mexican schools in Orange County, the California legislature passed legislation repealing all school segregation. That law was signed by then California Governor Earl Warren, who would later become the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and preside over the Brown court.
Today, most Americans are familiar with the Brown v. Board of Education decision. However, the link between Mexican-Americans and African-Americans in the struggle for desegregation is not well known. The Mendez case and the relationship between the two cases is an important piece of U.S. history that deserves to be more widely acknowledged. There is an award-winning PBS documentary of the Mendez case as well as books, articles, and teacher training materials that can be used to educate new generations. Sylvia Mendez continues to travel across the U.S. telling her story and fighting for civil rights.
Moreover, it’s important to learn a lesson from history and recognize that when communities work together, they can accomplish a great deal in their common struggle. This was apparent in last weekend’s immigrant rights march, which was notable for the diversity of its participants as well as in the efforts of African American faith leaders pressing for comprehensive immigration reform. As Blanco concludes, “Mendez and Brown together stand for the proposition that we must look for opportunities to share knowledge and strategies, understanding that we raise the other up in the process.”
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