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A Latinx Resource Guide: Civil Rights Cases and Events in the United States

1946: Mendez v. Westminister

“We conclude by holding that the allegations of the complaint (petition) have been established sufficiently to justify injunctive relief against all defendants, restraining further discriminatory practices against the pupils of Mexican descent in the public schools of defendant school districts.”

—Judge Paul McCormick

Mendez et al v. Westminster School District of Orange County et al (1946) is an historic court case on racial segregation in the California public school system. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it was unconstitutional and unlawful to forcibly segregate Mexican-American students by focusing on Mexican ancestry, skin color, and the Spanish language. This case forged a foundation upholding the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, thereby strengthening the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which found racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

In 1945, the all-white Westminster Elementary School District rejected nine-year-old Sylvia Mendez and her brothers because of their Mexican appearance and ancestry. Legally, the census classified Mexican-Americans as racially “white,” based on a designation in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848). However, schools in California had begun to create separate Mexican schools at the behest of White parents in the 1930s. At the time, Mexican-American migrants had established themselves as a large minority population following the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). James Kent, the superintendent of one of the defending districts, stated that “people of Mexican descent were intellectually, culturally, and morally inferior to European Americans.” Judge Paul McCormick found these arguments did not justify the segregation of schools. His ruling established that “the clear purpose of the segregation by the school districts was to discriminate against pupils of Mexican descent”, affecting roughly 5000 Mexican-American students across four school districts.

Civil court cases contextually preceded the Mendez case. One important example is the People v. Zamora (1944). In this largest mass trial in Californian history, the prosecutor used the appearance of the youth as a part of his evidence for their conviction. Seventeen Latino defendants were deemed guilty of assault, second-degree murder, and/or first degree murder, after the Los Angeles Police Department detained over six-hundred Mexican American youth.

Timeline

1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo categorized Mexican Americans as White on the census.
1910-1920 Mexican Revolutionary War occurred, leading to displacement and emigration from Mexico.
Early 1930s Due to the combination of increased immigration from Mexico and increased labor needs in the citrus industry, roughly 80% of school districts in California had made the decision to place Mexican schoolchildren into separate schools from their white counterparts.
October 4, 1944 People v. Zamora convicts seventeen Mexican-American youth, with culturally-based arguments the prosecutor extended as evidence of guilt.
July 1945 Mendez and the other four Mexican-American families officially file the lawsuit in federal court.
February 18, 1946 Judge McCormick rules that the segregation of Mexican students to separate schools in the Westminster school district is unconstitutional.

Resources

The following resources are available online at the Library of Congress.

Staff in the Hispanic Reading Room can provide access to these books at the Library of Congress. If you cannot visit the Library in person, please contact us using Ask a Librarian for assistance. In many cases, you can also find these materials at your local library.

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

The following external websites can be useful for expanding your research on Mendez v. Westminster.

Featured Video

On September 17, 2015, Duncan Tonatiuh discussed his children's book "Separate Is Never Equal," the story of Sylvia Mendez and her family's fight to end school segregation of Mexican Americans in California in 1947.