Commemorating the 60th Anniversary of Mendez v. Westminster
Imagine American soldiers fighting overseas for their country and freeing the world of tyranny. Then imagine that on returning home, former soldiers finding their community’s children forced to study in segregated schools with access to far fewer resources than in their mainstream counterparts? Imagine the irony that soldiers and U.S. society faced after World War II.
Before Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court’s monumental decision to end de jure segregation in dozens of states, Mendez v. Westminster (and before that, Alvarez v. Lemon Grove) helped establish legal precedents for Brown by laying the foundation for our nation’s schools using the fourteenth amendment as the focus for defending children’s constitutional rights in our nation’s public school system.
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
–Section 1, Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution
In March 1945, parents Gonzalo Mendez, William Guzman, Frank Palomino, Thomas Estrada, and Lorenzo Ramirez, sued the Westminster, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, and El Modena school districts. The modus operandi for proponents of segregation was twofold: to separate Mexican American children on the basis of their appearance and to gerrymander districts by isolating minority population centers and herd students into “their own people’s schools.” The districts claimed that the Latino schools had comparable facilities, used the same textbooks, and implemented the same curriculum as schools in mainstream districts. The plaintiffs argued that it was unacceptable to offer separate public facilities based on national origin. They cited studies that separate treatment made children feel inferior and prevented them from successfully assimilating into mainstream America, limiting children’s social, political, and economic futures. A federal court sided with the plaintiff and on appeal, the decision was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The coalition of individuals and organizations filing briefs in favor of Mendez included Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall on behalf of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People, as well as members from the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Congress, and the Japanese American Citizens League.
Although these court cases helped pave the way in the legal system to bring about greater equity in the public school system, the struggle for equal schools was not finished. Latinos and other minorities continued to live with de facto school segregation, inferior school facilities, and other forms of educational inequities until the sixties and seventies when public pressure on federal and state policies led to a rethinking of greater inclusion of all students. There was a realization that society needs to eradicate the perpetuation of a permanent underclass that had little chance of successfully living the American Dream.
Adam W. Sugerman is the president & publisher of Palmiche Press.