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Remembering Mendez: A Building Block for Brown v. Board of Education

Friday morning on NPR, a segment featured Sandra Mendez Duran and her sister, Sylvia Mendez discussing the court case their parents brought against the school district in Orange County, California in 1945 that was a critical building block in the legal foundation that lead to the landmark Supreme Court desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education. The NPR story, part of the Story Corps special project on Latino oral history, Story Corps Historias, included the sisters reminiscing about their parents, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, and the court case that bears their name, Mendez v. Westminster:
I remember being in court every day. They would dress us up really nice and we'd be there, sitting very quietly - not really understanding what was going on. And it wasn't until I was 10 years old that I really discovered what they were fighting. And I remember this so vividly.
Sylvia goes on to describe what happened when she was allowed to attend a previously all-white school after the Ninth Circuit found (in 1947) in favor of the Mendez family and the other four families who were plaintiffs. Her younger sister, Sandra, who was not born until after the decision, describes how she learned about the case as a college student years later.  Her parents never said anything about it and her teacher – a Chicano Studies Professor – didn’t seem all that interested. Earlier this week, the Immigration Policy Center of the American Immigration Council released a paper in their series Perspective on Immigration that will help explain the significance of Mendez to Sylvia, Sandra, Sandra’s professor, and you. Maria Blanco, Executive Director for the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute at Berkeley Law, authored the short, readable paper that lays out how the federal circuit court’s 1947 decision that found segregation of Mexican American school children in California unconstitutional, contributed to both the legal precedents and legal strategy at play in Brown about a decade later:
From a legal perspective, Mendez v. Westminsterwas the first case to hold that school segregation itselfis unconstitutional and violates the 14th Amendment. Prior to the Mendezdecision,some courts, in cases mainly filed by the NAACP, held that segregated schools attended by African American children violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause because they were inferior in resources and quality, notbecause they were segregated. From a strategic perspective, Thurgood Marshall’s participation in Mendezpaid critical dividends for years to come. Marshall, who later would successfully argue the Brown v. Board of Educationcase before the U.S. Supreme Court and eventually become the first African American Justice on the Supreme Court, participated in the Mendezappeal. His collaboration throughout the case with the Mendezattorney, David Marcus, helped ensure that the case would be an important legal building block for Marshall’s successful assault on the “separate but equal” doctrine. Although Marshall and Marcus differed in aspects of their legal approach to the segregation involved in the Mendezcase, their exchanges about the stigma attached to segregation and the psychological damage caused by it undoubtedly played a large role in the Mendezlitigation.
The six-page paper is available here as a pdf. The NPR Story Corps Historias story is here with a link to the audio.