Anyone who has taken a United States history course is familiar with Brown v. Board of Education. This landmark case declared school segregation to be unconstitutional and ended the separate but equal doctrine. However, many are unfamiliar with the case that paved the way for this historic ruling. Mendez v. Westminster was the, “first successful federal school desegregation decision in the United States” (CRF).
This case dates back to the 1940s where under California law, the segregation of Mexican-American and Anglo-Saxon students was permitted. In California, children of Hispanic descent were sent to alternative schools on the grounds that they, “had little or no English language skills” (NPS). These schools were generally underfunded, lacked in resources, and “only taught Hispanic children vocational skills and did not offer higher-level classes” (NPS). Since it was presumed, “Mexican-American children would only need skills for low wage labor” (NPS). Evidently, there was a discrepancy in the level of education between Mexican-American and Anglo-Saxon students, showing clear prejudice and bias against students of Hispanic descent.
In 1943 Gonzolo Mendez tried to enroll his three children Sylvia, Geronimo, and Gonzalo, Jr. at Westminster Main School in Orange County. However, the children were denied admission based on their Mexican Heritage and referred to the Hoover School located in a different school district. Sylvia recalls the Hoover School as, “two wooden shacks in a dirt lot next to a cow pasture” separated by an electric fence with decrepit desks and hand-me-down books” (Zonkel). Ironically, Gonzolo’s niece and nephew were admitted to Westminster Main School because of their, “light complexions and their last name, Vidaurri,” (CRF). Indicating the school board was discriminating based on appearance.
On March 2, 1945, Gonzolo along with five other Mexican-American fathers filed a lawsuit on behalf of 5,000 children of Hispanic descent against four school districts across California including, Westminster, Garden Grove, El Modeno, and Santa Ana. (Valencia) The plaintiff argued that, “the State of California violated the children’s right to the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment” and “The U.S. Constitution states that no State can “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” (NPS). In addition, the Mendez lawyer Marcus claimed, “that segregating children threatened their self-esteem and segregated school districts invented an inferior class of citizens where one did not exist” (NPS). In order to prove his claim, Marcus called upon the testimony of Mexican-American children and had them testify how they were negatively affected by segregation.
The defendants lawyer Ogle, “argued strenuously that the federal courts had no jurisdiction in Mendez because education was a matter governed by state law” and claimed, “that the districts were not segregating Mexican American children on the basis of race or nationality, but for the purpose of ‘‘providing special instruction to students not fluent in English and not familiar with American values and customs’’ (Wollenberg,1974). Finally, Ogle pointed out that in the 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson the Supreme Court had allowed states to segregate races, providing that the separate facilities were equal (Wollenberg,1974).
On March 18, 1946, Court Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled in favor of Mendez and stated that, “segregation prevalent in the defendant school districts foster antagonisms in the children and suggest inferiority among them where none exists”(Mendez). The school board later appealed the decision. This led to organizations like the American Jewish Congress, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Japanese-American Citizens League, and the NAACP to submit amicus curiae briefs to the court. Interesting enough “Thurgood Marshall, who wrote the NAACP’s friend of the court brief for Mendez v. Westminster, used the decision as precedent when he argued Brown v. Board of Education in front of the U.S. Supreme Court”(Mendez). On April 14, 1947, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld Judge McCormick’s ruling.
Sylvia Mendez grew up to be a pediatric nurse and a civil rights activist. She frequently travels across the country educating others on the historic contributions this case had on ending desegregation. In 2008, GALEO had the privilege to have Ms. Mendez speak at a luncheon and further discuss her parents legacy and contributions to our community. On February 15, 2011 Ms. Mendez received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.
Mendez v. Westminster is an integral case that set the stage for the favorable ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. As it was, “the first case to hold that school segregation itself is unconstitutional and violates the 14th Amendment” (American Immigration Council). This case set a precedent for Brown v. Board of Education and paved the way Thurgood Marshall’s successful stance on the separate but equal doctrine. Although it not as highly recognized as Brown v. Board of Education, Mendez v. Westminster should not be overshadowed as it plays a significant role in American history.
Billy, M. “The Echo of Mendez v. Westminster 70 Years Later – CA School Boards Assoc.” Medium, Medium, 5 Aug. 2016, medium.com/@CSBA/the-echo-of-mendez-v-westminster-70-years-later-b24d11438fe4.
Valencia , Richard R. The Mexican American Struggle for Equal Educational Opportunity in Mendez v. Westminster: Helping to Pave the Way for Brown v. Board of Education.
Zonkel, Phillip. “Righting a Wrong Mendez v. Westminster Brought an End to Segregation in O.C. Schools – and Ultimately throughout the State and Nation.” About Us,
Blanco, Maria. “The Lasting Impact of Mendez v. Westminster in the Struggle for Desegregation.” American Immigration Council, 9 Aug. 2016,
“U.S. Court House and Post Office—American Latino Heritage: A Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior,
Wollenberg, C. (1974). Mendez v. Westminster: Race, nationality, and segregation in California schools. California Historical Quarterly, 53, 317–332.
NOTE: The opinions expressed in this blog are the opinions of the author only. It is not to be assumed that the opinions are those of GALEO or the GALEO Latino Community Development Fund. For the official position on any issue for GALEO, please contact Jerry Gonzalez, Executive Director of GALEO at firstname.lastname@example.org.