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The Local Fight for Equal Education: Mendez vs Westminster

written by Betzaira Ruiz

2007 USPS Commemorative Stamp

In 1947 the Ninth Federal Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that segregation practices implemented by the Westminster School District were unconstitutional. This fight for children’s rights to access education was spearheaded by Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez in the landmark Mendez et al. v Westminster School District [161 F.2d 774 (9th Cir. 1947)] case.

In the 1940s many school districts in Orange County were separating Mexican American students from their white peers and enrolling them into Mexican schools. A statewide survey in 1931 demonstrated that 85% of California schools segregated children of Mexican root. According to the school districts many of these children- who were American born- needed special curriculum to learn English and become good “Americans.” They were seen as children who were mentally inferior, lacked hygiene and posed a threat to their Anglo peers. The typical lack of hygiene consisted of lice, impetigo, tuberculous, dirty hands, dirty neck and ears. Local community members believed Mexican American children were going to drop out of school to work in the fields with their parents and many officials saw this as a waste of taxpayer money. Subsequently, these targeted groups of children received less opportunities for educational advancement than their white peers.

Credit: Sylvia Mendez vis personal website

How did the Mendez family get involved with the local fight for Civil Rights?

During WWII, Japanese Americans were forced into state-sponsored internment camps. One such family leased their Westminster farm to Gonzolo Mendez. The Mendez family moved to the farm and began the process of enrolling their children in the local school, Westminster Elementary School. In September 1944, Westminster school officials informed Mendez that his children were not granted admission to the white-only school near their residence, but instead must attend a Mexican school, Hoover Elementary, in Santa Ana. One of the Mendez children remembers Hoover as a “terrible little shack” and a place that had no playground. Additionally, the school was near a cow pasture with an electrified fence.

The Court Case

After his children were denied admission because of their Mexican American lineage, Gonzolo began to organize other impacted parents to challenge the segregation of the Orange County school districts. They hired LA Civil Rights attorney, David Marcus, to take their case and in 1945 they sued four school districts in federal court.

James R. Browning United States Courthouse

David Marcus argued that segregating K-12 students based on their heritage violated the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. As evidence, Marcus put Sylvia Mendez and other Mexican American children on the stand to testify about the hardships and discrimination they faced in these schools. They addressed the quality of their school materials, like textbooks, which were discards from Anglo schools. The school districts were represented by Orange County Attorney, Joel Olge. He claimed that the federal government had no right to interfere with state decisions on K-12 education. The presiding judge, Judge McCormick, ruled that Orange County schools did violate the “equal protection” rights of Mexican Americans and ordered the governing boards of the school districts to stop the discriminatory practices against Mexican American children.

Lasting Impact

Even though Mendez won the case, some districts still implemented the “separate but equal” policy, keeping Mexican schools but ensuring they had the same resources as the Anglo schools”. For example, textbooks at one school could not be discards from another school and the environment had to similar – no electric cow fences! In California, public segregation wasn’t ended until June 1947, when Governor Earl Warren signed the Anderson Bill.

Far right: Virginia Guzman (1927-2017)

Their victory paved the way for others to fight for educational rights, including Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka. In 2000, in honor of the Mendez family, the Santa Ana Unified School District opened Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School. In 2007, the United States Postal Service released a stamp that commemorated the case. At Heritage Museum, this landmark case is commemorated through the inclusion of Virginia Guzman (1917-2017) within the Siempre Santa Ana mural. Virginia tried to convince Santa Ana Unified to desegregate Fremont Elementary but was unable to bring about the needed change. Her efforts were not in vain, as she continued the fight through participation in the successful Mendez et al. v Westminster lawsuit. The efforts of all of the families involved in the case continue to have lasting impacts on the educational opportunities for students on both local and national scales.

References

United States Courts. (n.d.). Background – Mendez v. Westminster re-enactment.

www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/background-mendez-v-westminster-re-enactment

Constitutional Rights Foundation. (2007). BRIA 23 2 c Mendez v Westminster: Paving the way to

school desegregation. www.crf-usa.org/bill-of-rights-in-action/bria-23-2-c-mendez-v-westminster-paving-the-way-to-school-desegregation

DocsTeach. (1945, March 2). Summons in Mendez v. Westminster School District.

https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/summons

Want to learn more about the Mendez et al. v Westminster School District Case? Below are some great resources!

United States Courts provides background information and includes downloadable activities.

PBS Learning provides wonderful support material for the case, and specifically utilized the Sandra Robbie documentary (below).

https://b2d38dd5-dc47-4527-a849-09d862b61b63.usrfiles.com/html/2b2e4b_d767b483cae16e027c4ea8ac7906fbf4.html

Mendez vs. Westminster: For All the Children

documentary by writer/producer Sandra Robbie