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U.S. Supreme Court,
Constitutional Law,
Civil Rights,
9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

Nov. 28, 2017

California ruling helped pave the way for Brown v. Board of Education

A federal lawsuit filed in the Southern District of California provided a key link in the evolutionary chain of school desegregation cases culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court's historic decision in the 1954 case.

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Thurgood Marshall, center, lawyer for the NAACP, arrives to the U.S. Supreme Court with aides to argue the Brown vs. Board of Education case, in Washington, Dec. 11, 1953. (New York Times News Service)

In 1934, Mexican-American children made up one-fourth of the total student population in Orange County. A study found that 70 percent of the Mexican-American children attended "Mexican" segregated elementary schools. See Gary A. Greenfield and Don B. Kates, Jr., "Mexican Americans, Racial Discrimination and the Civil Rights Act of 1866," 63 Cal. Law Rev. 682 (1975). Across the Southwest, including Texas and Arizona, "Mexican" children were similarly forced to attend segregated public schools.

Out of this segregation arose a federal lawsuit filed in the Southern District of California and its subsequent appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The rulings provided a key link in the evolutionary chain of school desegregation cases culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court's historic decision in the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education.

The Mendez Lawsuit

In 1943, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez moved their family from Santa Ana to Westminster, California. They had just leased a 40 acre parcel from the Munemitsu family, a Japanese-American family who were going to lose their land because they had been interned in a "relocation" camp in Arizona.

The Mendezes attempted to enroll their three children in the nearby 17th Street School but were told that their children, who were dark-skinned, would have to go to the "Mexican" school a few blocks away.

Outraged that his children were rejected, Gonzalo consulted with David C. Marcus, a Los Angeles attorney. Marcus advised Gonzalo that California did not have a state law that required separate schools for Mexican-American children. The state did not even require separate schools for African-American children. At that time, the only groups of children who could be segregated under state law were Native Americans, Japanese, Chinese and Mongolian children.

Marcus counseled Gonzalo that the case would be more persuasive if he could prove that other school districts in Orange County besides Westminster maintained separate public schools for Mexican-American children. The Lorenzo Ramirez family from El Modena, the Frank Palomino family from Garden Grove, and the William Guzman and Thomas Estrada families from Santa Ana all quickly joined the case.

On March 2, 1945, Marcus filed the lawsuit in the federal district court in Los Angeles on behalf of the families against the four school districts. The lawsuit, based on the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of the "equal protection of the laws," demanded that the school districts be enjoined from maintaining public schools for Mexican-American children. Amicus briefs were filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild.

On July 5, 1945, the two-week trial commenced before U.S. District Judge Paul J. McCormick. Among the 25 witnesses for the petitioners was 9-year-old Sylvia Mendez, the daughter of Gonzalo and Felicitas, who testified in perfect English that she was ready to go to the 17th Street School, her neighborhood school.

Marcus retained as an expert witness Dr. Ralph Deals, head of UCLA's Anthropology department. Deals testified that separating Mexican-American children from "white" children would stamp the Mexican-American children with a badge of inferiority -- and the "white" children with a badge of superiority. He said that such practice would lead to unproductive Mexican-American citizens. He also testified that Nazi Germany had recently labeled as "inferior" people such as Jews and Gypsies but that America should not follow such attitudes and practices.

During the trial, Garden Grove School District Superintendent James L. Kent testified that he considered Mexican-American children "inferior." Court records show that Kent's testimony included opinions that Mexicans are inferior in personal hygiene, ability and in their economic outlook, which prompted Marcus to compare Kent to Hitler. Kent also testified that, "he would never allow a Latino child to attend an all-white school even if that child met all the qualifications to attend such a school." "Lesson Learned on School Discrimination," Los Angeles Times (Sept. 9, 1996).

Santa Ana School District Superintendent Frank A. Henderson testified, "that students were assigned to the city's then 14 elementary schools solely on the basis of their last names. Exceptions were sometimes made by the four districts for Latino children who "looked" white or had European names." Id.

The school district's main legal argument was that the court lacked jurisdiction because local school board actions did not constitute state action.

On Feb. 18, 1946, Judge McCormick ordered the injunction against the four school districts restraining them from segregating children of Mexican or Latin descent in separate public elementary schools. He declared that: "The equal protection of the laws pertaining to the public school system in California is not provided by furnishing in separate schools the same technical facilities, text books and courses of instruction to children of Mexican ancestry that are available to the other public school children regardless of their ancestry. A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality. It must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage." Mendez v. Westminster, 64 F.Supp. 544, 549 (S.D.Cal. 1946).

The school districts defiantly appealed to the 9th Circuit. Amicus briefs on behalf of the Mendez family and the other plaintiffs were filed by the ACLU, National Lawyers Guild, Japanese American Citizens League, American Jewish Congress, NAACP and the attorney general of California.

The NAACP brief was authored by Thurgood Marshall -- who would later argue for the plaintiffs before the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown before himself becoming an associate justice of the high court -- Robert L. Carter and Loren Miller. Carter stated that the Mendez case was a "test case" for the NAACP in its attempt to over-turn the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which set the precedent for "separate but equal" facilities for "white" and "colored" races. According to an interview with Carter, the brief was very similar in content to the first brief which the NAACP filed in Brown in 1952.

On April 14, 1947, Judge Albert Lee Stephens, writing for a unanimous (7-0) 9th Circuit, upheld the trial court's decision. Westminster v. Mendez, 161 F.2d. 744 (9th Cir. 1947). But Judge Stephens narrowly construed the decision on the grounds that the segregation constituted unequal application of the law. The appellate court found that as no California law required or permitted the school districts to segregate Mexican school children, that such segregation violated the plaintiffs' 14th Amendment right to the equal protection of the laws. The appellate court refused to confront Plessy v. Ferguson by stating, "we are of the opinion that the segregation cases do not rule the instant case and that is reason enough for not responding to the argument that we should consider them in light of the amicus curiae briefs." Id. at 780.

The four school districts finally accepted the decisions and decided not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Slowly they began dismantling the segregated systems in their schools. Similar lawsuits, citing Mendez, were filed across the Southwest which resulted in successfully dismantling separate schools for Mexican-American children.

Mendez and Brown

Significantly, Justice Earl Warren's forceful, yet easily understood ruling in Brown v. Board of Education mirrored the language and sentiment of McCormick's decision in Mendez. For example:

Mendez: "Commingling of the entire student body instills and develops a common cultural attitude among the school children which is imperative for the perpetuation of American institutions and ideals." Id. at 549.

Brown: "It (education) is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today, it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values." Id. at 493.

Mendez: "The evidence clearly shows that Spanish-speaking children are retarded in learning English by lack of exposure to its use because of segregation." Id. at 549.

Brown: "Segregation with the sanction of law therefore has a tendency to retard the educational and mental development of Negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system." Id. at 494-95.

Mendez: "It is also established by the record that the methods of segregation prevalent in the defendant school districts foster antagonisms in the children and suggest inferiority among them where none exists." Id. at 549.

Brown: "Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group." Id. at 494.

Mendez: "A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality. It must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage." Id. at 549.

Brown: "In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms." Id. at 493.

Mendez: "The equal protection of the laws' pertaining to the public school system in California is not provided by furnishing in separate schools the same technical facilities, text books and courses of instruction to children of Mexican ancestry that are available to the other public school children regardless of their ancestry." Id. at 549.

Brown: "We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate education facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs . ..are deprived of the equal protection of the laws." Id. at 495.

Based on all the foregoing, it is clear that Warren read and thoroughly absorbed McCormick's ruling in Mendez prior to authoring the Brown judgment. Moreover, the Mendez decision helped shape the U.S. Supreme Court's sense of fairness and equity which manifested itself in the Brown decision.

#344983

Ben Armistead

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