70 years ago, California ended a type of segregation

School desegregation brings to mind famous photos of African-American children integrating classrooms after the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. But over seven years earlier, five Latino families fought and won a case that helped integrate schools in California. On its 70th anniversary we look back at the mostly forgotten Mendez v. Westminster case.

When attorney David Marcus filed the lawsuit in 1945, his case was not based on racial equality. At that time, the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson ruling allowed for the separation of races as long as there were equal facilities, so the courts were rejecting the argument that segregation based on race was unconstitutional. For Marcus, the key would be to prove not that segregation was wrong, but that Latino students were white and being discriminated against.

Judge Frederick Aguirre has written about the Mendez case.
Judge Frederick Aguirre has written about the Mendez case. (Photo by Brigid Kelly)

“We’ve had nuances here in the United States regarding how white (do) people have to be in order to be treated equally,” said Orange County Superior Court Judge Frederick Aguirre, who has written several articles on the Mendez case.

While Mexican-Americans in the 1940 U.S. Census were considered white, many of those children were forced to attended non-white schools that focused primarily on vocational skills.

1936 class picture from the Mexican School in Placentia, Calif.
1936 class picture from the Mexican School in Placentia, Calif.

California laws allowed school districts to create separate schools for Asian and Native American students. Considering those precedents, local school boards decided to create separate schools for Mexican children as well. The decision was based partly on an assumption that Latino students didn’t speak English well enough to be integrated into mainstream schools although few were given assessments and many were born in the United States.

Educators also doubted Latinos’ ability to pursue academics but thought they were especially adept at using their hands. Some Mexican-American schools ended classes at 12:30 p.m. so students could work picking citrus and walnuts. The Mendez lawsuit argued that the Latino students were being “denied the benefits and education” furnished to other children in schools with academic programs that could help students prepare for college.

Marcus argued that the practice of separating Latino students was unconstitutional because it denied them equal protection under the law, as required in the 14th Amendment. In the trial, experts testified that segregation impaired the students from learning English and becoming Americanized, and had a psychological impact by being a constant insinuation of inferiority.

On Feb. 18, 1946, U.S. District Judge Paul McCormick of Los Angeles ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. “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,” he wrote. This rejection of the idea that schools could be “separate but equal” stirred excitement among civil rights groups, who thought Mendez v. Westminster might be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where a victory could be used to integrate schools across the country.

In the end, an appellate court narrowed Judge McCormick’s decision to apply solely to Latino students in the specific districts listed in the lawsuit. The case fell into obscurity and the civil rights spotlight focused on racial integration.  

“Mexican-Americans just did not get the attention for the kinds of treatment and the kinds of cases that they filed in their quest for equal treatment, and it’s unfortunate,” Aguirre said.