Many Fullerton residents may not be aware that a landmark desegregation case, Mendez et al. v. Westminster, began here in Orange County. Recently, an exhibition about this court case was created by Fullerton’s nonprofit, The Museum of Teaching and Learning (MOTAL), and displayed close to home at the Brea Museum. MOTAL founder Greta Nagel suggested I visit the exhibit, titled A Class Action: The Grassroots Struggle for School Desegregation in California.
The exhibit tells how five Orange County families fought for school desegregation in the 1940s. Before Brown v. Board of Education was decided in the US Supreme Court, Mendez v. Westminster was decided in the Ninth Circuit.
In March 1945, five Mexican American families (Estrada, Guzman, Mendez, Palomino and Ramirez) sued four school districts in Orange County (Westminster, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, and El Modena) on behalf of an entire community whose children were required to attend segregated “Mexican schools.” After two years of fighting, the families won their case. At the time, this was the most important legal victory in the fight against segregation the nation had known.
Through user-friendly displays, MOTAL’s exhibit shows museum-goers how the famous civil rights class action lawsuit paved the way for the nation to finally become desegregated by focusing on the families. Each family saw injustice and decided to fight on behalf of all children who faced discrimination in districts that practiced school segregation. Today, their victory still teaches a valuable lesson: if we share a sense of community and the courage to seek justice, we can make our schools better places to learn and our communities better places to live.
Opening the doors to the Brea Museum, my family and I were cordially greeted by curator Linda Shay, who introduced us to a museum docent who took us down to the lower level to see the display. According to an email I had previously received from Ms. Nagel, I discovered that Sylvia Mendez, daughter of key plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit (and also a Presidential Honor Awardee), is a resident of Fullerton. Ms. Nagel said, “We are very proud to have created this exhibition in collaboration with many individuals from Fullerton. In addition to local families and assorted visitors from the region, several classes from Cal State Fullerton and Chapman University have been scheduled to visit and study this important civil rights story.”
It turns out that the first version of the exhibition was displayed at the historic Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana for an entire school year. “That version was made of wooden walls and panels,” stated Ms. Nagel. “We learned that in order to travel, an exhibition would require lighter materials, so we created new versions. It has traveled to thirteen host institutions in California and Oregon.” The Brea Museum had the exhibition until October 20th.
As I entered the exhibit, an introductory letter from Ms. Nagel read, “During the 1940s, while many Americans fought in World War II to defend freedom, some were fighting for freedom at home. Mexican Americans in Orange County confronted segregation every day – at restaurants, movie theaters, swimming pools, and even public schools.”
A common background created a strong sense of community among Mexican Americans, who faced hardship, discrimination, and open hostility. During the early years of the Great Depression, more than 400,000 people of Mexican descent were deported. Mexican Americans in Orange County fought against such treatment. In the early 1940s, Manuel Veiga, Jr. helped form the Latin American Voters League in Santa Ana, Alex Bernal fought against housing segregation in Fullerton, and Lorenzo Ramirez of El Modena defended the rights of Mexican immigrant workers.
“Mexican schools” emerged during the 1920s as a response to immigration. The 1920s witnessed significant growth in the Mexican American population of Southern California, which newspaper editorials labeled “the Mexican problem.”
“Mexican schools” soon became entrenched in Orange County. Their supporters believed that these schools Americanized children, enabled more efficient instruction, trained future workers and responded to “Mexican racial deficiencies.” Supporters of segregation also believed that differences in English skills and intelligence were more important than what the children had in common. Segregationists thought separate schools allowed teachers to focus on the perceived needs of Mexican American children without slowing the progress of white children.
However, Mexican Americans throughout the country knew segregated schools were inequitable. In October 1943, Rebecca Sanchez and Frances Garcia told the Santa Ana School Board that Mexican schools were discriminatory. The Board promised to study the issue, but a year of inaction prompted William and Virginia Guzman to confront the Board again. Their attorney, other parents, and members of the Latin American Voters League joined them. The Board asked for more time to study the issue.
Similar situations played out across Orange County, so the Estrada, Guzman, Mendez, Palomino and Ramirez families worked with civil rights advocates in El Modena, Santa Ana, Westminster and Garden Grove to bring about a class action lawsuit. David Marcus, a talented civil rights lawyer, revealed discriminatory practice in all four school districts. Judge Paul McCormick listened carefully to the attorneys and witnesses. At first, he was not sure if segregated Mexican schools reflected discrimination. However, Marcus’s case convinced him that they did.
On February 19, 1946, Judge McCormick issued a courageous ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, saying that Mexican schools were unconstitutional and fostered inequality. For the first time in U.S. history, a federal judge attacked the notion that “separate but equal” schools matched the ideals of the Constitution. Marcus had proven that segregation was based more on ethnicity than language ability. Such segregation, McCormick ruled, violated the Fourteenth Amendment. McCormick understood that segregation did not produce young citizens who would stand as equals with their peers.
“A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality,” ruled McCormick. “It must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage.”
However, their fight was not over. The school districts took their case to a higher court and the community rallied to support David Marcus as he prepared for another hearing. Latin American Voters League members, newly affiliated with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) played a crucial role. The case received national attention, and prominent civil rights organizations offered their support. The NAACP, the American Jewish Congress, and the Japanese American Citizens League joined the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild in submitting written arguments calling upon the Appeals Court to rule that segregated schools were unconstitutional. Seven judges announced their ruling on April 14, 1947, upholding the parents’ victory only because California laws did not authorize the segregation of Mexican American children. Unlike Judge McCormick, they were not ready to condemn segregation itself.
The last display of the exhibit read, “Children watched their parents fight for fair treatment. Their parents’ courage and sacrifices told the children they were loved, their education was important, and their rights as citizens could not be denied. In many ways, these were the legacies of an entire generation of Mexican American men and women. They fought for their rights as workers, parents, immigrants, and citizens. Today, we celebrate these legacies, and we see them in the faces of Latinos and Latinas who were encouraged to enter college, pursue their dreams, and make their own contributions to our schools, communities, and country.”
The exhibit at the Brea Museum is now over but, if you missed it, don’t worry because I’ve created a video showcasing highlights of the exhibition. Just visit the Fullerton Observer website, click on the “Videos” tab and click on the words “Emerson Little YouTube Channel,” which will take you directly to my page.
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My first visit to the exhibit was at CSUF next to the arboretum. I have been interested ever since. I will be retiring next month and I am considering several volunteer opportunities. I started school in Inglewood in 1946. Highland School was definitely not segregated and I am so glad! Friendships were forged that lasted through high school and beyond.