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The case that came before Brown

April 20, 2007 | Page 6

KURT KRUEGER on a California legal challenge that set the stage for the Supreme Court's famous desegregation decision.

MANY PEOPLE are familiar with the landmark decision of Brown v. School Board of Topeka, Kansas that ordered the desegregation of public schools throughout the United States. Not so many are aware of the case that paved the way for this decision seven years earlier--Mendez v. Westminster School District.

April 14 will mark the 60th anniversary of the Mendez decision that made California the first state to desegregate its public schools. Mendez is also important because it placed the struggle for civil rights across regional, racial and ethnic lines. It also illustrates how race, class and citizenship marked 20th century Mexican history and was one of the growing efforts by Mexican Americans to cast off a mantle of systematic prejudice.

Ever since the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, Mexican Americans who lived in the territory gained by the U.S. have struggled for equality. As early as 1855, laws in California made state funding for education available only to white students. Educational codes specifically denied African American, Asian American, and Native American students the right of equal education.

Although the laws did not address Mexican Americans per se, by custom they were forced to attend segregated classes in "Anglo schools"--or, more commonly, in separate "Mexican schools."

In the early 1900s, California's booming citrus industry attracted many Mexican immigrants. By 1920, the Mexican American population in Southern and Central California had tripled. Communities responded by discriminating against Mexicans in employment and in access to educational opportunities.

The Southwest during this period was full of segregated restaurants, theaters and public pools--where Mexicans were only allowed to swim one day a week, after which they were cleaned for white kids. Some stores even had signs that read "No dogs or Mexicans allowed." In response, many Latinos joined labor unions, mutual-aid societies and local grassroots organizations.

Conditions in the Mexican schools were vastly inferior to the white schools. Mexican teachers were uniformly paid less than their white counterparts, and little money went toward building Mexican schools, which received hand-me-down books and desks.

Classes were overcrowded, and the curriculum disproportionately focused on vocational skills--the assumption being that Mexican students are only good with their hands and not intelligent enough to be trained for professional jobs.

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THE HORRORS of the Second World War fueled a growing resistance to discrimination by Mexican Americans who thought their involvement in a war for freedom overseas also required equality at home. The resistance peaked in the mid-1940s when a tenant farmer named Gonzalo Mendez moved his family to the predominately white Westminster district in Orange County.

The Mendez family moved so that they could lease a 60-acre asparagus farm from a Japanese American family that had been "relocated" to an internment camp in Arizona. In order to maintain the land, the Mendez family hired braceros.

In 1944, Sylvia Mendez was eight years old when she and her brother walked with their aunt, Sally Viadurri, and cousins to enroll at a new school in Westminster. The Viadurri children had French ancestry, so they had fair skin, brown hair and blue eyes. The Mendez children on the other hand, were dark-skinned. School officials told the aunt that they would enroll the Viadurri children, but that the Mendez children needed to enroll at the Mexican school.

This led to the lengthy Mendez trial, which called in expert witnesses and social scientists to question the constitutionality of educational segregation. Initially, the defense attempted to make the case that schools should remain segregated because the Mexican kids could not speak English, and should stay at these schools until they were "Americanized." Numerous students like Sylvia testified, proving that they were indeed bilingual.

Sylvia also recalled that one school she attended did not have any play equipment or grass outside, just dirt. The school was located near a cow pasture, so when she would eat her lunch, flies would swarm her food.

Throughout the trial, superintendents echoed a racist stereotypical image of Mexicans. The Garden Grove superintendent declared, "Mexicans are inferior in personal hygiene, ability and their economic outlook." He recited a list of hygienic deficiencies supposedly peculiar to Mexican students that required their segregation, including, "lice, impetigo, tuberculosis, generally dirty hands, face, neck and ears."

In 1946, the judge ruled that the equal protection provision of the Fourteenth Amendment pertained to equal access of education, and that under that provision, segregation based solely on national origin was unconstitutional. The Ninth Circuit upheld an appeal, but only on narrow grounds that although California law provided for segregation of students, it only did so for "children of Chinese, Japanese or Mongolian parentage."

However, Mendez had a ripple effect across the Southwest, since the case represented the first successful challenge to the decades-old "separate but equal" doctrine. One year after the Mendez decision, a California statute that segregated Asian Americans was repealed, as well as a statute that segregated Native Americans. In 1948, a federal court in Texas ruled that segregated schools for Mexicans was unconstitutional, followed by Arizona in 1950.

The 1954 Brown case involved several key figures from the Mendez case. As California's governor, Earl Warren signed Mendez into law and repealed all other state segregation laws. Later, as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, he wrote the Brown decision.

Thurgood Marshall had contributed an amicus brief in the Mendez case, asking the court to broaden the scope of the case and to completely strike down the "separate but equal" doctrine. He later made the same argument in the Brown case as the NAACP learned from Mendez to shift its legal strategy to include social science and educational research, not just legal precedent.

Mendez also brought into question the use of intelligence testing of Mexican students, where lower test scores were used to justify schools training them as cheap labor. For example, teacher-training manuals written by a local educator in 1932 advised school board officials that 75 percent of Mexican children in Orange County were mentally retarded. Intelligence tests continued to be used, as well as the idea of "Americanization," and helped spur the Chicano Movement in the 1960s.

Today, the fight for school desegregation is far from over. Once again, Orange County contains some of the most segregated school districts in the country. The fight for full equality will ultimately have to look beyond the confines of the courtroom.

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