Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Mendez v. Westminster Presentation

Mark your calendar for the upcoming presentation on the Mendez v. Westminster School District case scheduled for Wednesday, October 3, 2007 from 12:30 to 1:40 p.m. in Montgomery Hall at Evergreen Valley College.
Guest speakers include:
  • Chris Arriola, Deputy District Attorney of Santa Clara County
  • Sylvia Mendez, daughter of the plaintiff named in the lawsuit
  • Sandra Robbie, Emmy award winning filmmaker
Listen to an audio clip of Sylvia Mendez describe how her family sued for desegregation and won at

Photo source:

Ruling Gives Children Equal Rights

Historically, the Supreme Court's decision in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, racial segregation became the law of the land as the ruling claimed "separate but equal" public facilities would be established. The assumption was that public facilities would be separate but equal on all counts. In education, it was common practice to have separate schools for African Americans or Mexican Americans and Anglos. The Mendez v. Westminster School District case (1947) was a monumental step forward to end segregation of Mexican American school children in California.

At the turn of the century, Mexican American children in the Southwest often were separated from Anglo school children and segregated into "Mexican" schools. The Mexican schools were typically shacks or barns rather than equal institutional structures to that of "Anglo" schools. The Mexican schools were commonly unequal in books, desks, school supplies, and they were often given the used, damaged and outdated books from the Anglo schools.

In 1945, Mexican parents tried to enroll their children into the Main Street Elementary School located in the Westminster School District, Orange County, California. Main Street School was an Anglo school not an integrated school. The children were turned away from the school and sent to Hoover School (see photograph above), a "Mexican" elementary school. One such family was the Mendezes (see photograph below). As the Mendez parents, Gonzalo and Felicitas, attempted to enroll their children at the Main Street School their children were refused admission because they were Mexican. Listen to Sylvia Mendez recall her experience as a child attending a Mexican School at

Led by the Mendezes, the parents of the Mexican American children, united against segregation in their school district and community. Filing a class action lawsuit on behalf of 5,000 families, the Mexican parents disputed against four school districts, including Westminster and Santa Ana, in the Los Angeles federal court for segregating their children. The case became known as the Mendez v. Westminster School District. The Mendez's counsel, David Marcus, a Los Angeles attorney was sought and funded by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Marcus argued in court for desegregation of California's schools "on the grounds that perpetuation of school admissions on the basis of race or nationality violated the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the National Constitution."2 In response, the defendants argued that Mexican children were unfit and incapable to attend the "Anglo" school.

The defense claimed that the Mexican American children possessed contagious diseases, had poor moral habits, were inferior in their personal hygiene, spoke only Spanish and lacked English speaking skills. Thus, the children are unqualified to attend Anglo schools and facilities. Despite much opposition from the Anglo Orange County community and school districts, in 1946, federal judge Paul J. McCormick ruled in favor
of Mendezes and the co-plaintiffs. McCormick found that '"the segregation of Mexican Americans in public schools was a violation of the state law"" and unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment because of the denial of due process and equal protection.3 Thus, McCormick struck down systematic segregation in public schools in California.

Shortly after Judge McCormick's ruling, in April of 1947 the defense sought to appeal the decision claiming the federal court did not have the authority in this matter. Simultaneously, the plaintiffs bulked up on their representation for the Court of Appeals proceeding. With financial support from LULAC and continued legal representation from Marcus, the plaintiffs counsel included support from several multiracial organizations, such as, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, American Jewish Congress, American Civil Liberties Union, and the Japanese American Citizens League. Interestingly, NAACP Attorney Thurgood Marshall honed his skills in the Mendez case as he would later pursue desegregation for African Americans in the Brown v. the Board of Education (1954) in seven years.

Successfully, the legal dream team of the Mendezes defeated the defense as the Court of Appeals supported Judge McCormick's earlier decision which claimed the segregation of Mexican American children violated the Fourteenth Amendment. McCormick's decision ushered in the end of segregation and a new bill, entitled "The Anderson Bill." The Bill passed the California Assembly and the Senate and was signed into law by California Governor Earl Warren in June of 1947. By September of 1947, Mexican American children were able to attend integrated schools in Orange County. The Mendez v. Westminster School District case broke down legalized segregation and illuminated conditions of systematic racism and discrimination which was prevalent not only in California but the rest of the country.

1 "'Before 'Brown v. The Board of Education.'" Claudio Sanchez. Natl. Public Radio. 22 Mar. 2004, 30 Aug. 2007,

2. "A History of Mexican American Schools in California." Historic Sites. 17 Nov. 2004. 30 Aug. 2007,

3 Ruiz, Vicki. "We Tell Our Children They are Americans." The Brown Quarterly. 6:3 (2004) 30 Aug. 2007,

Monday, August 27, 2007

Historical Perspective

The 1923 class photo to the left is an image of Sycamore School, a "Mexican" school in Orange County, California. Mexican American students attended a segregated school which was nicknamed the "Barn." In accordance with the Supreme Court's ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, segregated schools were commonplace in the early to mid 1900s.
Throughout American history issues of racial equality and educational opportunity have been disputed. Interestingly, the 1947 Mendez v. Westminster School District nor the infamous 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education were the first cases for desegregation of public schools. The following bullet points highlight several desegregation court cases both before and after Mendez and Brown:
  • Roberts v. Boston--Massachusetts State Supreme Court case, 1850
Five-year-old, African American, Sarah Roberts, had to walk past five "Anglo" schools to get to the "colored" school. Attempting to enroll in an Anglo school, she was refused entry into an elementary school that was much closer to her home in Massachusetts. With support from the African American community, Sarah's father filed a lawsuit against the city to end segregation in public schools. However, the ruling in the Massachusetts State Supreme Court took the side of the school district and allowed it to segregate in schools as it saw fit.
  • Plessy v. Ferguson--U. S. Supreme Court case, 1896
Homer Plessy, a biracial man, attempted to sit in the white section of a railroad car in Louisiana. When Plessy refused to move out of the white section, he was forcibly removed and jailed. According to the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act, Plessy would have been required to sit in a separate railroad car for "colored" passengers regardless if he was biracial. Plessy claimed that the Louisiana Separate Car Act violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, and filed a lawsuit. The Louisiana courts, however, favored the Louisiana Separate Car Act as they claimed it was not in conflict with the Amendments.

In 1896,
Plessy took his case to the U. S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court concurred with the Louisiana courts and ruled against Plessy. It claimed that the Louisiana Separate Act did not violate Plessy's rights as long as the separate cars were equal to one another. The decision approved de jure segregation of races in transportation, public facilities, accommodations, schools, theaters, and restaurants.
  • Gong Lum v. Rice--U. S. Supreme Court case, 1927
Nine-year-old, Martha Lum, a Chinese American, enrolled in a public school in Mississippi. Shortly after enrolling, the Superintendent of the school district told Martha that she could not attend the school as she was not Anglo nor could she return the following day. Shortly after, her father, Gong Lum, filed a lawsuit against the school board, claiming that Martha was not colored, was Chinese American, and that she should be able to attend the Anglo school. Her father, took the case to the Mississippi State Supreme Court. The ruling favored the school board, however. Undaunted, the Lums, took their case to the U. S. Supreme Court. Yet Chief Justice William Howard Taft supported the decision of the Mississippi State Supreme Court. He ruled that Martha could not be classified as white, and she could only attend a "colored" public school.

  • Roberto Alvarez v. The Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District--San Diego Superior Court case, 1931
Seventy-five first generation Mexican American students attended Lemon Grove Grammar School in 1930. In that year, the Anglo school board of Lemon Grove School District met on several occasions to discuss the need for a separate school for Mexican American children. Yet the Mexican parents were not invited nor notified of these meetings.

At the beginning of the school day on January 5, 1931, Principal Jerome T. Green welcomed all children into the school except the Mexican American children. Directed by the school trustees, Principal Green told the Mexican American children that they could no longer attend Lemon Grove Grammar School. Instead they had to attend a separate school. The separate "Mexican" school was a two room building which was nicknamed, "La Caballeriza" or the barnyard. Instead of going to the "Mexican" school the children returned to their homes.

The Mexican parents refused to allow their children to attend the "Mexican" school. The parents petitioned the courts to reinstate their children into Lemon Grove Grammar School as they found the exclusion of their children had been an attempt at racial segregation. The San Diego Supreme Court Judge Claude Chambers found for the plaintiffs. Judge Chambers stated that the Lemon Grove School Board members had illegally condoned racial segregation and all Mexican American students were ordered back to Lemon Grove Grammar School. In addition, Judge Chambers declared that segregation in the school district had no legal basis. Listen to an NPR audio clip at

  • Brown v. Board of Education--U. S. Supreme Court case, 1954
Seven-year-old Linda Brown had to walk one mile and across a railroad switchyard to get to her "colored" elementary school in Topeka, Kansas. Yet an all-white school was only a few blocks from her home. Her father, Oliver Brown, attempted to enroll his daughter into the white school near their home, but the school principal refused for Linda to be enrolled because she was black.

The Brown
family, along with support from the black community and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a lawsuit against The Board of Education. One of the lead lawyers for the case was NAACP's, Thurgood Marshall. Marshall gained experience in the desegregation case Mendez v. Westminster seven years prior.

The Brown case would
eventually make its way to the U. S. Supreme Court. Marshall pushed for the court to overturn the precedent that was established in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), allowing for "separate but equal" public facilities. In 1954, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren found for the plaintiffs and in a monumental decision overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. Chief Justice Warren claimed that "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," and the ruling had violated the Fourteenth Amendment.

The decision paved the way for integration. However, the Supreme Court failed to mandate a timeline and instead claimed that public school desegregation was to be implemented with "all deliberate speed." Countless states refused to follow the Court and declared the decision void or simply had schools close their doors rather than implement integration. The ruling would later help light the fire of the Civil Rights Movement and black pride.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Lesson Plans Based on Your Time

Mendez v. Westminster School District (1947)

Learning Outcomes:
  1. To demonstrate an understanding of the role of the state and federal judiciary in issues of racial equality in relation to educational opportunity prior to the Mendez v. Westminster decision.
  2. To demonstrate an understanding why matters of racial equality and educational opportunity were controversial issues throughout United States history.
If you have half of a day . . .
  • Begin with the activity entitled "Class Discussion Questions." Ask the students to respond to the questions in an open discussion. Simply click on the document to the left and print out copies for the class.
  • Have students read the Los Angeles Times article entitled "Ruling Gives Mexican Children Equal Rights." Click on the article to enlarge for printing. Students will identify the arguments for each side and predict the outcome.
If you have one day . . .
  • Complete all of the activities for the half day.
  • View the Emmy-award winning documentary (30 minutes), "Mendez v. Westminster: For all the Children/Para Todos Los Ninos." Have students complete the "Mendez Film Analysis Worksheet" provided. Click on the two pages and print out copies.
If you have two days . . .
  • Complete all of the activities for the half and first days.
  • View a video on an additional desegregation court case in California. The film is entitled "The Lemon Grove Incident" and is approximately 58 minutes in length. Have students complete the "Lemon Grove Incident Film Analysis Worksheet." The two page worksheet is available to download to the right.
  • Next, have students read and discuss the "Historical Perspective" section in this Blog. Analyze the key points of each segregation court case and its ruling.
If you have three days,
  • Complete all of the activities from the half, first and second days.
  • For homework, have students study one photograph or cartoon from this Blog. Students will complete the "Photo Analysis Worksheet" or "Cartoon Analysis Worksheet" on the photo or cartoon that they choose. The Worksheets can be downloaded and printed at and