Marking Integration History
A Westminster march between former school sites traces a landmark 1946 court case that had fallen into relative obscurity.
By William Wan
Times Staff Writer
More than 50 years ago, Sylvia Mendez sat in the witness chair, a frail
9-year-old all but lost in the courtroom where her parents were suing to
open up a "whites-only"
public school in Westminster to her and her two brothers.
School officials argued that Mexican American children weren't fit for
"white" schools because they couldn't speak English. Sylvia Mendez was
on the stand to prove
that she could.
"I was terrified," Mendez said Wednesday as she and her brothers joined
a march to commemorate her family's victory in the 1946 case. "The court
looks very big when
you're a child."
The result of Mendez vs. Westminster was a court order that desegregated
all public schools in Orange County, one of the first such rulings in California
and one that
laid the groundwork for broader decisions. A year later, Gov. Earl Warren halted segregation in California public schools; in 1954, as chief justice of the United States,
he also wrote the decision in Brown vs. Board of Education that declared segregated public schools unconstitutional.
As significant as it was, the case is little remembered today. That's
why about 40 activists, along with the Mendez siblings, marched Wednesday
from the site of the
now-vanished Hoover School, the "all-Mexican" school that officials wanted the Mendez children to attend, to the site of the former 17th Street School, where they
successfully sought admission.
Participants hope the event will encourage students and schools to pay more attention to the case in studying segregation and the history of California.
Many of the marchers hadn't even heard of the case until Sylvia Mendez and others spoke about it last week at Cal State Long Beach.
"I thought segregation was just something that happened in the South
between black and white people," said Luisa Flores, a freshman at the university,
the rain. "People need to know about this."
Sandra Robbie, who made an Emmy-winning 2002 documentary on the case, called it a crucial link between Latinos and the civil rights movement.
As the Mendez siblings marched through the rain with students young enough to be their grandchildren, they recalled events a half-century ago.
The case began in 1944, when parents Gonzalo and Felicitas tried to
enroll their children at the 17th Street School, which was closer to home
than Hoover. When the
school said no, "my father thought it was a small misunderstanding," said Jerome Mendez, 65. "When he found out it was a rule, that really made him mad."
The father, an asparagus farmer, hired a lawyer to file suit.
But for all its historical and legal significance, the case fell into obscurity. The Mendez family never talked about it afterward.
A younger sister, who was born after the ruling, learned of it only when she stumbled across her family name in a college textbook on Mexican culture.
"Our family was not one to brag about anything," said Sylvia Mendez, 67.
She remembers telling her friends that her family had bought a television. Her father scolded her for showing off, and thus she learned the lesson.
"But now, no one really knows about what happened," she said, adding that drawing attention to the case no longer seems selfish.
These days, Sylvia, accompanied by her brothers, travels from school to school, talking about the case and trying to persuade students not to drop out.
"Maybe if they knew about this, they wouldn't take things for granted," she said. "Maybe if they knew someone fought for them to be there, they wouldn't leave."