Gonzalo Mendez was born in Mexico in 1913. Mendez, his mother, and her other four children moved to Westminster, California, in 1919. In 1943, at age 30, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States and was a relatively well-off vegetable farmer. By this time, Mendez and his wife had three children who grew up speaking English as well as Spanish, and in fact, the family spoke more English than they did Spanish when at home. In the neighborhood where the Mendez family lived, there was only one other Mexican-American family. The other neighbors were all Anglos, and all of their children attended Westminster Main School.
In 1945, when his children went to register for school, Gonzalo expected that they would be attending Westminster Main School, the same school that he had attended with other Mexican and Anglo children until he was forced to drop out to help support his family. Much to his surprise, when his children returned home, they informed him that they would have to attend the Hoover School, which was located in a different school district, and furthermore, all of the students there were Mexican or Mexican-American. Gonzalo spoke with the principal, the Westminster School Board, and eventually the Orange County School Board, but without success.With the aid of his lawyer, Gonzalo discovered that other school districts in Orange County also segregated their Mexican-American students. On March 2, 1945, the attorney representing Mendez and the other plaintiffs filed a class action suit in a U.S. District Court not only on their behalf but also on behalf of some 5,000 other persons of “Mexican and Latin descent.” The defendants were four school districts, their superintendents, and their school boards. The plaintiffs argued that their children had been arbitrarily assigned to attend schools “reserved for and attended solely and exclusively by children … of Mexican and Latin descent” while other schools in the same system were “reserved solely and exclusively for children known as white or Anglo-Saxon children.” When there was no state law mandating their segregation, they argued that segregating children of Mexican ancestry was a violation of the equal protection of the law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The attorney did not argue that the school districts were segregating on the basis of race. In fact, he argued, there was no “racial” segregation because “Mexicans were members of the white race.” The attorney knew that he could not argue that segregation based on race was unconstitutional because the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 had upheld racial segregation. The case was assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Paul McCormick of the Southern District of California, Central Division.
The Court considered the following question:
Does the segregation of Mexican-American public school children in the absence of a state law mandating their segregation violate California law as well as the equal protection of the law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?
Judge Paul McCormick of the U.S. District Court, Southern District of California, Central Division ruled first that the segregation violated California’s own laws, but then he went on, writes Professor Philippa Strum, the resident senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, “to suggest a new interpretation of the federal equal protection clause.” McCormick wrote: “A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality. It must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage.” As Professor Strum notes, “That, simply stated, was a declaration that ‘separate but equal’ was not equal.”
Before Judge McCormick’s decision was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco, the different school districts involved in the litigation reacted in different ways. Westminster integrated its elementary schools for the 1946-1947 school year by placing grades 1-4 in Westminster Main and grades 5-8 in Hoover. Finally, the Mendez children were able to attend Westminster Main.
In April 1947, the U.S. Court of Appeals handed down a unanimous decision. While the Court of Appeals upheld Judge McCormick’s judgment, it did so only on the basis that the segregation violated California law. The Court’s opinion noted that the U.S. Supreme Court’s segregation decisions were not controlling in this case since there was no state law mandating segregation of Mexican-American children, and there were such state laws in the litigation decided by the nation’s highest Court. As Professor Strum indicates, “The Court of Appeals was only willing to say that Mexican-American children could not be segregated because the legislature had not decided that sending them to separate schools was state policy.”
The school districts involved chose not to pursue an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sources: For a full and complete treatment of this case see Philippa Strum. Mendez v. Westminster: School Desegregation and Mexican American Rights. University Press of Kansas, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7006-1719-7. Also, see Neil Foley. Quest for Equality: The Failed Promise of Black-Brown Solidarity. Harvard University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-674-05023-5.
- 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient - Sylvia Mendez
- Teachers’ Domain: Mendez v. Westminster: Desegregating California’s Schools
- National Archives: Education Resources on School Desegregation