In light of the recent happenings across the country with regard to the public education system, (Texas destroys then rewrites history with their new curriculum, Arizona bans ethnic studies and everything else but the kitchen sink,) and in response to a recent members comments that Latinos, specifically Mexicans, should not compare their civil rights struggles to those of African Americans, I felt compelled to share this often overlooked but hugely significant part of US American history and the role of Latinos in it.
In school most of us learn about the Black and White segregated south and Plessy v Ferguson, “separate but equal.” We hear of signs in public and private establishments and on water fountains and bathrooms designating White and Colored. We also learn that in 1951 Oliver Brown, the father of a child in Topeka, Kansas, was the first to successfully challenge the constitutionality of school segregation in the landmark case Brown v Board of Education. While Brown v Board of Ed did end legal school segregation on the national level, Oliver Brown was not the first to successfully challenge it, nor was Topeka, Kansas the place.
Meet Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez:
Seven years before Brown v Board of Education, Gonzalo Mendez, a Mexican, filed a class action lawsuit against four California Orange County school districts on behalf of his family and 5,000 other Mexican families. He claimed the separate but equal school system was discriminatory because it segregated students based on their national origin. He called witnesses who described the adverse effect of this system on self-esteem, child development, language acquisition and cultural assimilation. He won the case and as a result created a legal ripple effect that not only ended school segregation across the state of California but also overturned all of California’s “separate but equal” statutes. The Mendez ruling served as an important legal precedent and catalyst in the national fight for school desegregation. Based on current events it may surprise you to learn that the next two states to desegregate schools were Texas in 1948 and Arizona in 1950 (oh, how things have changed). The NAACP also closely watched the results of Mendez v Westminster and it was cited in Brown v Board of Education to strengthen their case for national school desegregation. Federal District Judge, Paul J. McCormick, who ruled on the case wrote:
“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.” from Mendez v. Westminister School Dist. of Orange County, 64 F.Supp. 544 (D.C.CAL. 1946).
Few people are taught about this pivotal part of civil rights history in the United States. In fact, few people are even taught that “separate but equal” extended beyond a black/white issue. Just as in the Southeastern states where discrimination against African Americans was legal and institutionalized, in the West and Southwest United States, people of Hispanic, Native American and Asian decent were legally and institutionally discriminated against. Signs in stores would often read “No Mexicans”, “No Indians”. At the time the US viewed race as only White and Black, so although Latinos were legally considered White, they were still discriminated against.
To learn more about this moment of ORGULLO in our history please check out the links below. There is a video clip on the “teacher domain” page of a great documentary about this case. Check it out.
See also: http://americanhistory.si.edu/brown/history/2-battleground/pursuit-equality-2.html
See also: http://www.usps.com/communications/newsroom/2007/sr07_038bkgrnd.htm
The full documentary, Mendez v Westminster is available for purchase in the shop at: http://www.wmht.org/
by Charlotte Melanie