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The Méndez Case: Brown v. Board of Education for Mexican Americans
Digital History ID 607

Author:   Méndez et al. v. Westminster School District
Date:1946

Annotation: As late as World War II, it was common practice in the Southwest to segregate Mexican Americans in schools. In every California community with a sizable Mexican population, schools were segregated. Sometimes there was just a Mexican room, but many districts identified a separate Mexican school.

Gonzalo Méndez, a tenant farmer, and a group of Mexican American World War II veterans in California's Orange County, demanded that their children attend the same schools as Anglos. They filed a lawsuit in federal court against four Orange County school districts seeking an injunction that would order their schools' integration.

Two years later, in 1947, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that school districts could not segregate on the basis of national origin or Mexican descent. California Governor Earl Warren persuaded the legislature to repeal laws that segregated Asian and Native American schoolchildren. Warren went on to write the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that ruled that racial segregation was unconstitutional. Excerpts from the 1946 Méndez et al. v. Westminster School District decision follow.


Document: That all children or persons of Mexican or Latin descent or extraction, though Citizens of the United States of America...have been and are now excluded from attending, using, enjoying and receiving the benefits of the education, health and recreation facilities of certain schools within their respective Districts and Systems....

In the Westminister, Garden Grove and El Modeno school districts the respective boards of trustees had taken official action, declaring that there be no segregation of pupils on a racial basis but that non-English-speaking children...be required to attend schools designated by the boards separate and apart from English-speaking pupils; that such group should attend such schools until they had acquired some proficiency in the English language.

The petitioners contend that such official action evinces a covert attempt by the school authorities in such school districts to produce an arbitrary discrimination against school children of Mexican extraction or descent and that such illegal result has been established in such school districts respectively....

The ultimate question for decision may be thus stated: Does such official action of defendant district school agencies and the usages and practices pursued by the respective school authorities as shown by the evidence operate to deny or deprive the so-called non-English-speaking school children of Mexican ancestry or descent within such school districts of the equal protection of the laws?...

We think they are....

We think the pattern of public education promulgated in the Constitution of California and effectuated by provisions of the Education Code of the State prohibits segregation of the pupils of Mexican ancestry in the elementary schools from the rest of the school children.

...The common segregation attitudes and practices of the school authorities in the defendant school districts in Orange County pertain solely to children of Mexican ancestry and parentage. They are singled out as a class for segregation. Not only is such method of public school administration contrary to the general requirements of the school laws of the State, but we think it indicates an official school policy that is antagonistic in principle to...the Education Code of the State....

We perceive in the laws relating to the public educational system in the State of California a clear purpose to avoid and forbid distinctions among pupils based upon race or ancestry except in specific situations not pertinent to this action. Distinctions of that kind have recently been declared by the highest judicial authority of the United States "by their very nature odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality." They are said to be "utterly inconsistent with American traditions and ideals."...

The evidence clearly shows that Spanish-speaking children are retarded in learning English by lack of exposure to its use because of segregation, and that 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. 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....

Source: Civil Action No. 4292. District Court, San Diego, Calif., Central Division, Feb. 18, 1946. Federal Supplements, Vol 64, 1946, 544-51.

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