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Historic School Bias Lawsuit Nearly Forgotten

Education: Gonzalo Mendez's case against Westminster district led to integration of Orange County classrooms 50 years ago.

September 10, 1996|H.G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTMINSTER — World War II had just ended and the United States had established itself as a leader of freedom and democracy in the Western world--but not for everyone.

Gonzalo Mendez and his three children were in the middle of a war at home for a simple freedom--the right for the children to attend school with other Americans.

Mendez sued the Westminster School District in 1945 after his children were not allowed to attend school with white children and were ordered to enroll in an all-Mexican American school. His suit, and the resulting court ruling, set in motion the integration of schools in Orange County 50 years ago this month.

Today, the Westminster district is considered a model of integration. There are about 9,000 students in the district's 16 schools in kindergarten through grade eight, one-third of whom are Latino, one-third Asian (mostly Vietnamese and Korean) and one-third white.

But the 50th anniversary of Mendez vs. Westminster School District revives painful and embarrassing memories for the district, administrators said. Tracy Painter, current special projects director, called the case "Westminster's call to infamy" and "a wake-up call" to all districts.

"We learned from it and moved forward," Painter said. "We've [become] innovative and positive. Our special instructional program, which has become a model for the state and is the first of its kind, is designed to help children whose primary language is not English."

When Mendez filed the suit, only two schools were in the district--one for whites and the other for Mexican Americans. Later, the suit became a class-action on behalf of 5,000 Latino children in the county, and the Santa Ana, Garden Grove and El Modena school districts were added as defendants.

Court documents show that school officials attempted to justify the segregation of children by arguing that Mexican American children were "unable" to speak English and did not understand Mother Goose rhymes.

Mendez, angry that his children were the targets of such thinking, hired Los Angeles lawyer David C. Marcus, who was paid $500 to represent the family. Marcus exposed the racist beliefs of some local educators and challenged the institutional bigotry of the time.

After a monthlong trial in Los Angeles in 1945, U.S. District Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled the following year that the school districts' policy of maintaining separate schools violated the 14th Amendment right of equal protection.

The ruling, however, is not even a footnote in California history books, and many educators do not know or remember its importance. Orange County Supt. of Schools John Dean said he had never heard of the case, and the school district has no plans to commemorate the historic event.

Even Mendez, who died in 1964, never realized the important role that he played in the civil rights struggle waged by Latinos and African Americans to integrate the nation's public schools.

"My dad never understood what had happened. He was just doing it for his family and the Mejicanos," said Gonzalo Mendez Jr., now 59 and an Orange resident. He and his sister, Sylvia, 60, of Fullerton, and brother, Geronimo, 58, of Merced, were the lead plaintiffs.

While the elder Mendez never saw the case beyond what it did for his family, the Yale Law Journal and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People predicted in 1947 that the ruling would lead to a Supreme Court decision on school segregation. But the suit did not become the national test case because the school districts backed down when their appeal of McCormick's ruling was rejected by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In 1954, NAACP lawyers, led by Thurgood Marshall, who later became a Supreme Court justice, used the Mendez case in their successful Brown vs. Board of Education lawsuit that integrated public schools nationwide.

The Mendezes said they are proud of their contribution to the civil rights struggle, but lament that they remember little of the case. When they were turned away from 17th Street School, Sylvia was 8, Gonzalo Jr. was 7 and Geronimo was 6. The school was closed in 1974.

"I do remember going to court and sitting in a big chair when I testified," said Sylvia Mendez. "I had to testify because [school authorities] said we didn't speak English."

During the trial, Garden Grove School District Supt. James L. Kent testified that Latino children needed a special curriculum to become "Americanized." Kent's testimony also included opinions that "Mexicans are inferior in personal hygiene, ability and in their economic outlook," court records show.

Marcus, meanwhile, emphasized that most of the children and their parents already spoke fluent English and that many parents were U.S. citizens.

In his 19-page ruling, McCormick said the districts failed to give "credible language tests" to Mexican American children to determine their proficiency in English.

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