Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Mendez v. Westminster

Mendez, et al v. Westminster School District, et al, 64 F.Supp. 544 (C.D. Cal. 1946), aff'd, 161 F.2d 774 (9th Cir. 1947) (en banc), was a 1946 federal court case that challenged racial segregation in Orange County, California schools. In its ruling, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in an en banc decision, held that the segregation of Mexican and Mexican American students into separate "Mexican schools" was unconstitutional.

On March 2, 1945, five Mexican-American fathers (Thomas Estrada, William Guzman, Gonzalo Mendez, Frank Palomino, and Lorenzo Ramirez) challenged the practice of school segregation in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. They claimed that their children, along with 5,000 other children of "Mexican" ancestry, were victims of unconstitutional discrimination by being forced to attend separate "schools for Mexicans" in the Westminster, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, and El Modena school districts of Orange County. The plaintiffs were represented by an established Jewish American civil rights attorney, David Marcus. Funding for the lawsuit was primarily paid for initially by the lead plaintiff Gonzalo Mendez who began the lawsuit when his three children were denied entrance to their local Westminster school.

Senior District Judge Paul J. McCormick, sitting in Los Angeles, presided at the trial and ruled in favor of Mendez and his co-plaintiffs on February 18, 1946, finding segregated schools to be an unconstitutional denial of equal protection. The school district appealed to the Ninth Federal District Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which upheld Judge McCormick's decision, finding that the segregation practices violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Governor Earl Warren, who would later become Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court and preside over Brown vs. Board of Education, signed into law the repeal of remaining segregationist provisions in the California statutes. Several organizations joined the appellate case as amicus curiae, including the NAACP, represented by Thurgood Marshall and Robert L. Carter. More than a year later, on April 14, 1947, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling, but not on equal protection grounds. It did not challenge the "separate but equal" interpretation of the 14th Amendment announced by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.

The Ninth Circuit ruled only on the narrow grounds: although California law provided for segregation of students, it did so only for "children of Chinese, Japanese or Mongolian parentage." Because "California law does not include the segregation of school children because of their Mexican blood," the ruling held that it was unlawful to segregate the Mexican children.

Presumably, a similar lawsuit filed by "Chinese, Japanese or Mongolian" children in segregated schools would have had the opposite result. This was remedied in California later that same year, on June 14, 1947, when California Governor Earl Warren signed a law repealing the remaining school segregation statutes in the California Education Code.

Seven years later, in Brown v. Board of Education, Earl Warren, by then the Chief Justice of the United States, wrote the unanimous decision holding "separate but equal" schools to be unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.

On December 8, 1997, the Santa Ana Unified School District dedicated the Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez Intermediate Fundamental School in Santa Ana, California.

In 2003, writer/producer Sandra Robbie received an Emmy Award for her documentary "Mendez vs. Westminster: For All the Children / Para Todos los Ninos."

On September 14, 2007, The United States Postal Service honored the 60th anniversary ruling of Mendez v. Westminster with a 41-cent commemorative stamp.

On November 15, 2007, the United States Postal Service presented the Mendez v. Westminster stamp to the Mendez family at a press conference at the Rose Center Theater in Westminster, California.

On October 14, 2009, Chapman University's Leatherby Libraries dedicated the Mendez v. Westminster Group Study Room and a collection of documents, video and other items relating to the landmark desegregation case. The archive is the first step in Chapman University's vision to create the permanent home for the study and celebration of Mendez v. Westminster. The plan includes the creation of the Mendez Museum for Peace & Freedom and the Chapman University PeaceWalk. Chapman University is located in Old Towne Orange, within the footprint of one the former school districts (El Modena) named in the Mendez case. Chapman also owns the last standing Mexican school building from the segregation era in Orange County, CA.

On February 15, 2011, President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sylvia Mendez, the daughter of Gonzalo Mendez who was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. Sylvia along with her two brothers, Gonzalo, Jr. and Jerome, were some of the Mexican American students who were denied admission to their local Westminster school, which formed the basis for the suit. Sylvia was awarded the honor for her many years of work to ensure that the importance of Mendez v. Westminster in American history will not be forgotten.

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