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.
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, trudging through the rain.
Sandra Robbie, who made an Emmy-winning 2002 documentary on the case, called it a crucial link between Latinos and the civil rights movement.
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."