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Sylvia Mendez and California's School Desegregation Story

The towering figures of school desegregation are familiar to most of us: Thurgood Marshall. Earl Warren. Linda Brown. The Little Rock Nine.

There are countless others though—ordinary men and women—who took extraordinary actions to stand up to legal segregation. They were activist parents who filed lawsuits. They were angry students who protested the separate and unequal conditions they experienced in their schools and communities. And too few of them, and their stories, are well known.

Like Sylvia Mendez and her family. Their fight against a local school district in Southern California that required students of Mexican descent to attend schools separate from whites led to the desegregation of public schools in California seven years before the 1954 U.S Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. (There are several intriguing connections between Mendez v. Westminster, as the case became known, and Brown. More on that later.)

Of course, there is much more to the Mendez family's story and how Sylvia's father, a Mexican-born tenant farmer, ended up leading the fight to get his three children into the so-called "white" school in Westminster, Calif.

I had the good fortune of hearing Sylvia Mendez, a retired nurse, and her brother, Gonzalo Mendez, talk about their experience at a recent conference on the 60th anniversary of the historic Brown decision. A crucial fact about school segregation in California in the mid-1940s, when the Mendez family moved from Santa Ana to Westminster, is that there were no state laws requiring separate schooling for children of Mexican descent. But many local districts, such as Westminster in Orange County, had their own rules that required separate schools for Hispanic children.

The Mendez family moved to Westminster in the middle of World War II, after leasing a farm owned by a Japanese-American family that was being forced into an internment camp because of the war. When local school authorities consistently refused to enroll the Mendez children in the neighborhood school—it was the school for white children—Mr. Mendez sought out a Los Angeles civil rights lawyer to help. That lawyer, David Marcus, along with Mr. Mendez, actively recruited other Mexican families in Orange County to sign onto a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of separate schools in a number of school districts in the county.

Mendez v. Westminster went to trial in federal court in Los Angeles, and, in 1946, the judge found in favor of Mendez and the four other parent plaintiffs. The school districts appealed, but in 1947, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the lower court's ruling. Thurgood Marshall, a young lawyer for the NAACP, filed an amicus brief that presented evidence that separate schools, based on race or ethnicity, were not equal.

And soon after, California's governor, Earl Warren, signed legislation that repealed all provisions in the state's education code that allowed for any school segregation. One of Sylvia Mendez's most prized possessions, she said, are letters that Gov. Warren wrote to her father, thanking him for leading the fight against segregated schools.

Of course, seven years later, Chief Justice Earl Warren would deliver the U.S. Supreme Court's unanimous opinion in Brown.

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