Mendez v. Westminster Commemorative Stamp

September 13, 2007 




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Mendez v. Westminster StampA World War II-era legal case in which a group of civic-minded parents in California successfully sued to end segregation based on national origin in their schools, the Mendez et al. v. Westminster School District of Orange County et al. court case will be remembered on a U.S. postage stamp during its 60th anniversary.

As immigrants who came to the United States when they were children, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez dreamed the American dream. He was born in Mexico and she was from Puerto Rico, but they met and married in California. So it came as an insult when, in 1943, the elementary school in Westminster, a farm community south of Los Angeles where Gonzalo and Felicitas made their home, closed its doors to their three children.

Segregated public schools were common at that time. In California and throughout the Southwest, children of Mexican descent attended specially designated ‘Mexican schools,’ frequently in inferior facilities. Discriminatory practices were also common in movie theaters, where Mexican patrons were required to sit in the balcony, and at public swimming pools, where they were welcome only on designated ‘Mexican days.’

After his children were turned away from the Westminster School in the autumn of 1943, Gonzalo Mendez went to discuss the situation with school officials. The school board offered his children ‘special admission’ — but on March 2, 1945, Gonzalo Mendez and several other Hispanic parents sued four school districts (Westminster, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, and El Modena) on behalf of some 5,000 children. Their groundbreaking lawsuit became known as Mendez v. Westminster.

Arguing for the plaintiffs in court, attorney David Marcus attacked the prevailing notion of ‘separate but equal,’ a rationalization that it was acceptable to offer separate public facilities based on national origin or other criteria so long as the facilities were comparable. Marcus argued that they were not comparable, presenting testimony from parents and students as well as sociologists and educators, who testified that ‘separate but equal’ treatment made children feel inferior and prevented them from entering mainstream American culture.

The plaintiffs argued successfully that such practices on the part of California schools violated their Constitutional rights. On February 18, 1946, Federal District Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled that merely providing the same textbooks, courses, and comparable facilities in separate schools doesn’t give students equal protection under the law, and that social equality is ‘a paramount requisite’ in America’s public school system.

The school districts appealed, but the decision was upheld when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled on April 14, 1947, that the schools could not segregate on the basis of national origin. The opinion was specifically decided on the more narrow ground of whether state law allowed segregation based upon Mexican descent. The Court held that no statutes existed allowing this but that such discrimination had been carried out ‘under color or pretense’ of law. On June 14, 1947, a statute allowing segregated schools for Asians and Indians was repealed (effective September 19) by California governor Earl Warren, who later was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Mendez decision set an important if indirect legal precedent for cases in other states and at the national level. In 1954, Warren was chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court when it issued its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring segregation illegal nationwide. Earlier, Thurgood Marshall was one of the authors of an amicus brief submitted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the Mendez case. That brief later served as a model for the argument used in Brown v. Board of Education. The American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Congress, and the Japanese American Citizens League were also among those who filed amicus briefs in the Mendez case.

In 1998 the Santa Ana School Board named a new school in honor of Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez. An exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History included details on Mendez et al. v. Westminster School District et al. as well. In 2004, the Mendez family was honored at the White House for playing an important part in the history of American civil rights.

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