1954 was the year of the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, that ended school segregation. Before 1954, segregation dictated different facilities for African Americans and White Americans. But, the Jim Crow laws did not mention Latin Americans. In the 1920’s, Mexian American laborers arrived in South California. These communities started to enforce their own de facto segregation. Eight years before Brown vs. Board of Education, the Mendez family fought against the de facto segregation and changed California’s school segregation laws for all Mexican Amercans.
In 1940, more than eighty percent of Mexican American students in California went to what was known as “Mexican” schools, despite no California laws dictating such differences (Roos 2019). California school boards argued that Mexican American students needed special education for english and mathematics. Similar to Black schools in the south during this time, these “Mexican” schools were in awful condition compared to the white schools. Mexican American students were being taught to become field workers and house cleaners, and most of the school faculty benefited from this instruction since they owned citrus farms.
In 1944, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez moved them and their children to a small town outside of Los Angeles known as Westminster. The Mendez parents tried enrolling their children in a local school, but were denied. Gonzalo Mendez believed that all Mexican American students should be given a quality education that is equal to their white peers. Mendez joined four other plaintiffs who believed in the same opportunity, and filed a lawsuit in a federal district court known as Mendez v. Westminster.
In 1946, Federal District Judge Paul McCormick, delivered a landmark ruling in Mendez v. Westminster. Judge McCormick claimed that segregation of Mexican Americans was unenforceable under California law, and it violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. McCormick claimed that “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 (Roos 2019).”
When the NAACP heard about the Mendez case, they found their basis for their argument in Brown. When the California governor of the time, Earl Warren, heard McCormik’s ruling, Warren decided to outlaw school segregation of any kind in California. Warren went on to be one of the Supreme Court Justices in Brown v. Board of Education.
Today, Mendez’s case is overshadowed by the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education. Since Mendez’s case never went to the Supreme Court, it is commonly unheard of. Nevertheless, Mendez’s case made a significant impact on ensuring school segregation would be illegal under federal law.