In the coverage of the 2016 election cycle, you’ll hear this time and again: Latinos — immigrants and their families — are playing an important role in electing the next U.S. president. They are the largest minority group in the nation, and they are poised to make a major impact on American democracy.
It won’t be the first time. Seventy years ago, Mexican immigrants moved American civil rights forward, away from racial segregation toward integration and equality. It happened eight years before the Supreme Court began to dismantle segregation by handing down its decision in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.
In 1943, five Mexican American families took four school districts in Orange County to court, challenging the “separate but equal” education their American-born children were getting in “Mexican schools.” They knew their kids were treated as second-class citizens: taught by underpaid teachers, forced to use books and desks discarded by Anglo students, relegated to shoddy school buildings where the classrooms had so little light that reading was almost impossible.
The lack of resources, however, wasn’t what the plaintiffs in the case, Mendez et al vs. Westminster et al, complained about to the courts. Instead, they mounted a frontal attack on segregated schools, even though to many other enemies of segregation, the time wasn’t right. Thurgood Marshall, founder of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, was convinced that federal courts weren’t ready to strike down segregation. Instead of asking them to do so, the NAACP had adopted a tactic of bringing case after case designed to force Southern states to make separate schools truly equal. The goal was to make “separate but equal” so expensive that the states would give it up.
But in California, the Mexican American families and their attorney David Marcus told the courts that equal facilities would not satisfy them. It was segregation itself that was unconstitutional, they said. Separating Mexican American children from their Anglo peers did them “great and irreparable” harm, by making them feel so inferior that their ability to learn was affected. The Constitution’s 14th Amendment guarantees equal treatment under the law. Segregation violated that mandate.
The Orange County school systems replied that they were treating the Mexican American children equally by providing an education particularly suitable for them. At trial, they produced experts who testified that the children could not speak English, though no one had given them language tests. The children’s hands and faces, said the school districts’ witnesses, were “generally dirty,” they lacked proper clothing and “cleanliness” of body and mind, they had no manners, and they were “retarded” in their ability to learn.
Federal District Court Judge Paul J. McCormick, who presided over the case, rejected the schools’ case. Segregating children because they were Mexican American, he held in February 1946, violated the Constitution by suggesting “inferiority” among the children “where none exists.” It was exactly the same assertion that the NAACP would later adopt in its argument in Brown vs. Board, telling the courts that forcing minority children into separate schools sent the message that they were not as good as others. Low expectations led to low levels of learning.
“A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality,” McCormick wrote. Public schools “must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage.” In other words, “separate but equal” was not equal.
The decision was the first by a federal court asserting that separate but equal was unconstitutional. Opponents of segregation including the American Jewish Congress, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Japanese-American Citizens League rushed into the case when the Orange County school districts appealed McCormick’s decision. So did the NAACP; the brief it filed in Mendez became its practice brief for Brown vs. Board.
In Sacramento, Gov. Earl Warren read about the case and decided the time had come to end all segregated education in the state. A California statute specifically permitted segregation of Asian American and Native American children, and Warren and state legislators mounted a successful effort to repeal the law.
Warren was named chief justice of the United States in 1953. When he wrote the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, his reasoning paralleled McCormick’s in Mendez vs. Westminster.
In 1947, when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld McCormick’s decision, Westminster and the other school districts in Orange County quickly began to integrate their classrooms, and so did other school districts in California and all over the Southwest. Federally mandated school integration had come to the United States, and it was Mexican immigrants who made it happen.
Philippa Strum, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is also professor emerita at the City University of New York and author of “Mendez v. Westminster: School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights.”