Illustration of civil rights icon Sylvia Mendez by children’s book illustrator John Parra.
In 1943, Sylvia Mendez, then 9 years old, and her two brothers went with
their aunt and three cousins to enroll at the 17th Street School in Westminster, CA. School officials told her aunt that her children, who were half-Mexican but
had light skin & a French surname, could register at the "white" elementary school, but the Mendez kids, who were dark skinned and had a Mexican last name, were not allowed; they had to enroll at the "Mexican" school 10 blocks away.
Mendez's parents (Mexican & Puerto Rican immigrants) sued the school district in what turned out to be a ground-breaking civil rights case that helped outlaw almost 100 years of segregation in California & was a precedent seven years later for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.
Segregation was standard practice in 1940s California (Asian & Native
children also attended separate schools). In 1855, the state legislature said school boards could not use public funds to educate non-white students. Until the Mendez case, the logic of "separate but equal", which was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, was the law of the land. ◼️
On March 18, 1946, Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled that the "segregation prevalent in the defendant school districts foster antagonisms in the children and suggest inferiority among them where none exists" & that the equal protection clause had been violated.
"That was radical for the time," says Chris Arriola, a Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney. “That decision overturned a law that said segregation was OK." Thurgood Marshall, who wrote the NAACP's friend of the court brief for Mendez v. Westminster, used the decision as precedent when he argued Brown v. Board of Education in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Despite the triumphs of Mendez v. Westminster, the case remains largely unknown & unacknowledged. The California State Board of Education does not include the case in its K-12 content standards. Mendez was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.