Mendez v. Westminster: Planting the seed for Desegregation

Photograph of the poster of the first issue stamp celebrating the Mendez v. Westminster School District case that ended segregation in California taken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington D.C. on September 25, 2014 | Courtesy of flickr

It was a warm September day in 1943 when Soledad Vidaurri walked her daughters, Alice and Virginia Vidaurri, and her brother’s children, Sylvia, Gonzalo Jr., and Jerome Mendez, up the steps of Westminster Main School to enroll them for classes. The Mendez family, the Viduarris included, had just moved to Westminster, California to rent an asparagus farm from the Munemitsus, a Japanese family who had recently been interned, making their new home of the Mendez especially close to the Westminster Main School. Westminster Main, as beautiful and imposing as it was, supported segregationist educational attitudes.  Although Soledad and her daughters, who had a French last name and visibly lighter skin than their cousins, were welcomed into the school, Sylvia, Gonzalo Jr., and Jerome were turned away and told to go to Hoover Elementary, or the “Mexican school”, several blocks away from their new home.  “Their last name was Mexican; their skin was dark; Westminster Main didn’t want them.”1 Soledad refused to enroll her kids if her nephews and niece were not also allowed to register, and marched back home.  The events of that day not only marked the beginning of a two year legal battle against California’s segregation laws, but the fight against the “separate but equal” doctrine laid out by Plessy v. Ferguson case that would give way to the 1954 seminal Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education some eight years later.2

Something important to note right away is that Mexican Americans lived on the land generations before California became the 31st State in 1850 in the US.  Furthermore, with a backdrop of turmoil in Mexico, the United States instituted policies like the Bracero program, providing many incentives for additional groups of migrant to come to California. By 1940, Mexican-Americans and their descendants picked nearly 100% of all crops and harvests. Most of them lived in colonias, or ghettos, earned a yearly average family income of about $289—in comparison to the Anglo family’s $1, 784—and despite understanding that their only chances of escaping these ‘citrus societies’ was an education, were subject to de jure segregation—lawful segregation—in nearly every aspect of their lives.3

Following suit with other California school districts, the public school systems in Orange County had become segregated around the 1920’s. The Hoover school, where the Mendez family was instructed to send their children, was located near a cow pasture, bordering an electrified-wire fence, the children ate their lunch outside with the flies swarming above and around them since there was no lunch space, and walked to school—rain or shine—because the county refused have their buses drive into the ‘ghetto.’4 Every single one of the 152 students registered at Hoover was Mexican or Mexican-American. Sylvia, Gonzalo Jr., and Jerome’s father, grew up in Orange County and attended Westminster Main when he was young, very briefly being reassigned to a segregated school while in the 5th grade before being returned back to the “white” school after demonstrating his good English, and eventually dropping out to find work and support his family. But in-between the years he had left school and the day he sent his sister to register all four kids, segregationist attitudes in Orange County hardened solidifying the legal element of discrimination. By 1943 separation of Mexican from Anglo children had reached its peak.5

Photograph Westminster Blvd. at Oliver, Westminster, California photographer and date unknown | Courtesy of Orange County Archives

Gonzalo and Felicidad Mendez had no reason to believe that their children would be denied admission to the nearest public school on the basis of their heritage.  They were appalled to hear that their children would have to attend school in a completely different school district, and even more so, when they learned of the gapping disparities between the facilities.  The children were, after all, U.S. citizens; they spoke English and Spanish fluently; they lived in a neighborhood with white people, and even if they were the only family that did not match the block’s homogeneous ethnicity and race, their children should be able to go to the closer school. After his children were rejected, Gonzalo visited Westminster Main the very next day to speak with the Principal and demand that his children be allowed to register. Once again, they were denied.  The day after that, he made a visit to the Westminster school board with the same intention. He was equally unsuccessful. Gonzalo would visit them one more time and again to no avail before deciding to seek out legal advice.6

At a loss of where to begin their legal battle, Gonzalo and Felicidad were put into contact with David Marcus, a Jewish lawyer who had gained a bit of celebrity after taking on another Southern California city for discriminating against Mexican Americans in public spaces, through the recommendation of their produce driver and friend, Henry Rivera.  Although segregation was allowed by California law, the law about segregation in public schools was actually specific in who could be targeted and did not mention Mexican people.  At this point, the Mendez knew they had to do more than set up meetings, but neither they nor Marcus were quite ready to take legal action.  Marcus, having experience with cases like this, knew that the best chance they had at making change—whether they went to court or not—was proving that this was not a singular incident.  The plan was to have Felicidad take over the farm while Gonzalo and David Marcus drove around Orange County interviewing other parents about their experiences, and what they discovered shocked them.7

Orange County is large, encompassing both Anaheim and Huntington Beach, so while they were bound to discover instances of school segregation—especially in the cities Garden Grove and Santa Ana—Gonzalo and David Marcus were surprised to find out that multiple other families had also pleaded with their schools, principals, and school boards to allow their children to go to the ‘white’ schools, all to the same tired and disappointing end.8 Gonzalo and David Marcus went through the interviews hoping to convince parents to join them as potential plaintiffs and local organizations to back them.  To their partial disappointment, local organizations refused to get behind their case, partially due to the belief it could not be won; however, in large thanks to Gonzalo’s popularity and outgoing personality, they were able to recruit families and individuals to form a coalition to fight for integration in the schools. Around August of 1944, they began attending the school board meetings of four different school districts to call out the blatant discrimination, demand explanations, and demand a change, but ultimately they did not get anywhere. Tired of the excuses, Gonzalo, David Marcus, and the coalition decided legal action was no longer avoidable.  David Marcus began working on their legal strategy.9

Photograph of the Civil Case filed by Gonzalo Mendez et al. against Westminster School District et al. on 3/2/1945 | Courtesy of Records of District Courts of the United States.

Marcus filed a petition for a class action law suit against the Westminster, Garden Grove, El Modena, and Santa Ana school districts, their superintendents, and all the members of the school boards on March 2, 1945 on the basis that segregation against Mexican students deprived them of their Fourteenth Amendment right to equal treatment by the state, and further, that Orange County was violating California state law.10  The case really sought to address the pervasive segregation between Mexicans and Whites, and how that ideology bolstered and created the idea that Mexican people were culturally inferior.11 By that same token though, Marcus was careful to not present this case as concerning racial segregation but about intra-racial segregation—white people segregating other white people on the basis of their heritage or lineage.  The Fourteenth Amendment seeks to prohibit states from abridging fundamental personal liberties.12 At this point in time, however, the Supreme Court had upheld the doctrine set forth in Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that racial segregation was okay as long as the separated facilities were equal, multiple times, and as we know, racial segregation was legal in California. Therefore, the question of the case was not whether segregation in general was unlawful—segregation was not even considered discriminatory in itself—it was whether or not the segregation taking place in Orange County was an unjust, discriminatory act on the part of the school authorities. The defendants, lead by the Orange County District Attorney, George F. Holden, were not even worried by admitting they were segregating students; it was their belief that the facilities were of equal degree, and that the fact that Mexican students were in separate schools was either purely a coincidence of city zoning or simply because they did not speak English at all or well enough. It was David Marcus’s job to prove that the school districts were discriminating against Mexican students by systemically segregating them solely on the basis of their ethnicity, without reference to their linguistic or academic abilities and that this segregation in turn resulted in the children receiving an inferior education.13

The trial began on July 5, 1945 and, initially, proved difficult for Marcus and the petitioners, despite the obviously contradictory arguments given by Holden and the defense. For example, the defense would often accidentally admit that their own perceptions of Mexican and Mexican-American people did take a part in the segregation process, including their beliefs that Mexican children came to the schools mentally retarded, were generally inferior in their abilities, and were generally not clean. More frustrating though, the defense had a hard time sticking to the fundamental points of their arguments; for example, although they claimed the segregation was to assist the children with academic and linguistic problems—since it was their belief Mexican children could not speak English—when asked if Japanese, Native American, or even children with learning disabilities were also segregated, the answer was no. Nevertheless, over the course of the trial, David Marcus, the passionate and keen lawyer that he was, managed to poke holes in the defense. When Attorney Marcus called rebuttal witnesses, Ralph L. Beals, an anthropologist and professor, and Marie H. Hughes, an expert witness who specialized in Inter-American education and research concerning the education of Mexican-American children, then they began to gain the upper-hand. With the testimony of Beals and Hughes, Marcus was able to prove that segregation did not help children learn English—in fact, just the opposite. If the goal of the educational facilities were to help the children, segregation was counter-intuitive in its academic approach and social approach; creating a sense of ‘otherness,’ a stamp of inferiority, while the Anglo kids would receive a superiority complex.14  And furthermore, presented a lack of opportunities that could not mean equality no matter what the facilities looked like (even though the facilities in question were obviously less than adequate). The final nail in the coffin was the briefs the presiding Judge, Judge McCormick, asked both Marcus and Holden to file in hopes of answering two final questions concerning the nature of case: was this—the federal court instead of state court—the right setting? and whether or not they believed that segregation was necessarily the equivalent of discrimination.  David Marcus’s brief left no room for confusion.  “There was no doubt the court had jurisdiction… as federal law specifically empowers federal courts to hear cases involving deprivation of a person’s… equal rights, by a state,” the brief read.  David Marcus’s arguments and writing became passionate as he continued, writing, “… the respondents’ism, whatever it may be called, is at war with the American idea of equality and the democratic ideals declared in the bill of rights…”, in the end leaving no question—stated and unstated—unanswered. All they could do then was wait for McCormick to hand down his decision.15

On February 18, 1946, after seven long months, Judge McCormick finally handed down his decision. Unlike Judge McCormick’s long deliberation months, I will not keep you in suspense: “…the wait was worth it. The verdict was a resounding victory—one that upheld all the plaintiffs’ arguments and, to a large extent, tracked David Marcus’s brief in the case.”16 Judge McCormick first held that it was the right of the federal court to step in where the state was lacking to enforce constitutional practices of segregation—as he did in this case—and, for the first time ever, held that segregation in itself is a form of discrimination; separate but equal was inherently unequal. He issued an injunction to have the schools integrated and ordered that the school districts in question pay fines for their conspiracy against Mexican and Mexican-American children.  Unfortunately, the problems did not end there since this case made history.17 The schools and District Attorney Holden appealed on account of the facilities being separate, but equal—completely missing the revolutionary point of the case.  And despite the ruling and injunction, some of the schools decided that did not have to happen until they went through the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.18

Now, because this case had landmark status and the issue of segregation was endemic to say the least, the ruling had other impacts. News of the case broke national news and all over Orange County, Mexican-Americans were organizing, joining, and forming grassroots networks. This time around, the parents would have the support of not just their community, but of many famous—and still—important organizations.  Requests for copies of the case opinion were pouring out of McCormick’s office. The NAACP, American Jewish Congress, the Japanese American Citizens League, the ACLU with the Los Angeles chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, and then-Governor (future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), Earl Warren, had the California District Attorney write passionate and persuasive amicus curiae briefs in support of the plaintiffs. By the time they stood in front of the seven judges of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals the public eye—most importantly the California State Legislator—had turned its gaze to the case and avidly supported the proposition that segregation in the California public should be ended. This case was not different from their initial time in court; both the plaintiffs and respondents sticking with their familiar arguments, and when it was all over again, they settled in to wait.19

Photograph of a classroom in Westminster, Orange County Sept. 1947 six months after the Mendez case | Courtesy of Orange County Archives

Many—from the human rights organizations that submitted amicus briefs to the California citizens—speculated that if the schools lost again and appealed, this case would go before the Supreme Court and make national history. With attention drawn to the case and the question of the legitimacy of segregation hanging in the air, one important decision was made just before the Court of Appeals handed down their opinion. The State of California passed the Anderson bill that would end segregated education in the state by repealing the laws that allowed them in the first place. Only four days later, on April 14, the Court of Appeals would hand in their unanimous decision ruling in favor of the parents once again, and this time, the schools accepted defeat.20

The case had come and gone, but its legacy planted the seeds for further desegregation. This case is less known since it did not reach the supreme court. However, we can see the structural foundation for Brown v. Board of Education in the Mendez case.21 Brown v. Board of Education was a landmark decision by the Supreme Court which held that racial segregation in public schools violated the Equal Protection and Due Processes clauses of the Constitution and signified a definitive departure from previous Fourteenth Amendment precedents.22 Mendez offered a starting point for people like Earl Warren, who made sure the decision for Brown would be unanimous and who wrote the majority opinion for the case, and Thurgood Marshall, who co-wrote the NAACP’s amicus brief and used it as a sort of practice for Brown. We can also see how the language in Mendez directly influenced Brown- even though it was never cited in the case.23

Many, many years after the case and after David Marcus, Gonzalo, and Felicidad’s deaths, Sylvia Mendez—who was listed as a plaintiff in the case—went on to say, “Mendez is about everyone coming together.”24 Of all of the divisive decisions handed down and upheld by the courts, then and now, it is nice to remember and speak about a case that unified progress in its time.

  1.   Bowman, Kristi L., The Pursuit of Racial and Ethnic Equality in American Public Schools: Mendez, Brown, and Beyond (Michigan State University Press, 2015), 5-31.
  2.   Ronald Turner, “On Brown v. Board of Education and Discretionary Originalism,” Utah Law Review 2015, no. 5 (December 2015): 1143- 99.
  3.   Philippa Strum, “We Always Tell Our Children They are Americans: Mendez v. Westminster and the Beginning of the end of School Segregation,” Journal of Supreme Court History, no. 3 (2014): 308-309.
  4.   David-James Gonzalez, “Placing the et al. Back in Mendez v. Westminster: Hector Tarango and the Mexican American Movement to End Segregation in the Social and Political Borderlands of Orange County, California,” American Studies 56, no. 2 (Jan. 5, 2018): 31-52.
  5.   Strum, Philippa, Mendez v. Westminster : School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights(University Press of Kansas, 2010).
  6.   Strum, Philippa, Mendez v. Westminster : School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights (University Press of Kansas, 2010).
  7.   Strum, Philippa, Mendez v. Westminster : School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights (University Press of Kansas, 2010).
  8.   “Orange County.” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, January 1, 2018, 1.
  9.   Strum, Philippa, Mendez v. Westminster : School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights (University Press of Kansas, 2010).
  10.   Strum, Philippa, Mendez v. Westminster : School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights (University Press of Kansas, 2010).
  11.   Carlos R. Moreno, “Mendez v. Westminster and School Desegregation,” California Legal History 14 (2019): 93-105.
  12.   Thomas B. McAffee, “Inalienable Rights, Legal Enforceability, and American Constitutions: the Fourteen Amendment and the Concept of Unenumerated Rights,” Wake Forest Law Review 36, no. 3 (Fall 2001): 747; Delegates of The Constitutional Convention. The Constitution of the United States and The Declaration of Independence (Place of publication not identified), Racehorse, 2019.
  13.   Strum, Philippa, Mendez v. Westminster : School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights (University Press of Kansas, 2010).
  14.   Fredrick P. Aguirre, et al., “Mendez v. Westminster: A Living History,” Michigan State Law Review 2014, no. 3 (2014): 401-28.
  15.   Strum, Philippa, Mendez v. Westminster : School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights (University Press of Kansas, 2010): 118-119.
  16.   Strum, Philippa, Mendez v. Westminster : School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights (University Press of Kansas, 2010): 123.
  17.   Strum, Philippa, Mendez v. Westminster : School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights (University Press of Kansas, 2010).
  18.   Strum, Philippa, Mendez v. Westminster : School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights (University Press of Kansas, 2010).
  19.   Strum, Philippa, Mendez v. Westminster : School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights (University Press of Kansas, 2010).
  20.   Strum, Philippa, Mendez v. Westminster : School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights (University Press of Kansas, 2010).
  21.   Fredrick P. Aguirre, et al., “Mendez v. Westminster: A Living History,” Michigan State Law Review 2014, no. 3 (2014): 401-28.
  22.   David Skeels, “Judicial Review and the Fourteenth Amendment: the Forgotten History,” University of Toledo Law Review 51, no. 2 (Winter 2020): 281- 330.
  23.   Strum, Philippa, Mendez v. Westminster : School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights (University Press of Kansas, 2010).
  24.   Strum, Philippa, Mendez v. Westminster : School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights (University Press of Kansas, 2010): 163.

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11 Responses

  1. This article is a lot like how I would have written it up. I researched Mendez because I knew it was the rightful precursor to Brown v. Topeka. I also grew up and went through K-12 education in Southern California and 25 years after Mendez schools were still unofficially segregated by ethnicity ,and special education, but but as bad as Texas which was still 30 years behind California.
    The article was researched well , my term paper on the subject was heavily dependent upon the legal documents of the case and comparisons to Brown.

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