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Education Resources on School Desegregation

School Desegregation and Civil Rights Stories:
Orange County, California

In the Fall of 1944, Gonzalo and Felicita Mendez tried to enroll their children in the Main Street School, which Gonzola had attended as a child. However, the school district had redrawn boundary lines that excluded the Mexican neighborhoods. (The school district also segregated Japanese American children. However, it passed a resolution in January 1945 allowing these children to attend the Main Street School.) The Mendez children were assigned to Hoover Elementary School, which was established for Mexican children. Other Orange County Latino parents faced similar situations with their children. With the help of the United Latin American Citizens (LUCAC), they joined with the Mendez family and sued four local school districts, including Westminster and Santa Ana, for segregating their children and 5,000 others. This suit was heard in both state and federal courts.

At the state trial, Orange County superintendents used stereotypical imagery of Mexicans to explain the basis of school policy. One declared, "Mexicans are inferior in personal hygiene, ability, and in their economic outlook." He further stated that their lack of English prevented them from learning Mother Goose rhymes and that they had hygiene deficiencies, like lice, impetigo, tuberculosis, and generally dirty hands, neck, face and ears. These he stated warranted separation.

The attorney for Mendez, David Marcus, called in expert social scientists as witnesses to address the stereotypes. He also challenged, based on the 14th Amendment, the constitutionality of education segregation. He also had Fourteen-year-old Carol Torres take the stand to counter claims that Mexican children did not speak English. Felicita Mendez also gave testimony about her family life: "We always tell our children they are Americans."

It took also almost a year for state Judge Paul McCormick to make his decision. He ruled that there was no justification in the laws of California to segregate Mexican children and that doing so was a "clear denial of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment". The school districts filed an appeal, partly on the basis of a states' rights strategy. In 1947 the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court upheld the state court's ruling and the Orange County school districts dropped the case.

The case, Mendez v. Westminster School District, landed an important blow to school segregation in California. The case represents one of the growing efforts of Mexican Americans in the 20th Century to cast off systematic prejudice, confronting issues of race, class and citizenship. The Mendez case is also important because it underscored that the struggle for civil rights in America crossed regional, racial and ethnic lines. Amicus curiae briefs were filed in this case by NAACP (coauthored by Thurgood Marshall) and several other civil rights organizations, including the American Jewish Congress, the ACLU, the Japanese American League and the National Lawyers Guild. The case resulted in the California legislature passing the Anderson bill, a measure that repealed all California school codes mandating segregation. The bill was then signed by the governor, Earl Warren.

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