In March 1945, five fathers in Orange County, California, brought a class-action lawsuit against four school districts on behalf of 5,000 children who were forced to attend segregated “Mexican schools.” The story of this lawsuit, Mendez et al. v. Westminster School District et al., reveals how community organizing and grassroots activism, as a response to economic and social injustice, can produce positive change in schools and communities across the United States.
William Guzmán, Frank Palomino, Gonzalo Méndez, Thomas Estrada, and Lorenzo Ramírez—and the family members, friends, and community members who helped organize and sustain their effort—recognized injustice when they saw it.
Compared to the “American schools” of Orange County, the “Mexican schools” their children attended were inferior. Many of the buildings were dilapidated and dangerous. Most of the classrooms were dimly lit, poorly ventilated, and overcrowded. Most of the textbooks were dog-eared and outdated. All of the teachers and principals received less pay. Between the 1910s and the 1940s, thousands of Mexican American children passed through these schools, but only a small fraction attended high school. They were expected instead to join the ranks of Southern California’s agricultural laborers and domestic workers. Most of them did so—yet they, and their parents, dreamed of something better.
The plaintiff families and other community members recognized injustice, but they also knew their rights.
They knew that California state laws required local school districts to provide an education for all children. They also knew that the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution required state laws to treat all people within a state’s jurisdiction equally. Clearly, Orange County’s “Mexican schools” were inferior and thus unequal—but segregation itself, these parents realized, created and perpetuated a sense of inequality. Inspired by America’s fight against racist ideologies abroad, the NAACP, the ACLU, LULAC, the Japanese American Citizens League, and the American Jewish Congress rallied to support the families’ fight against discriminatory segregation here at home. A federal judge ruled in their favor in 1946, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision in 1947.
At the time, this was the greatest legal victory in the fight against segregated schools that the nation had ever known.
In California, the ruling triggered further progressive gains. As local school districts began to develop plans to close all “Mexican schools,” Governor Earl Warren signed legislation that abolished segregated schools for Asian American and Native American children throughout the state. In Texas and Arizona, Mexican American civil rights advocates were inspired to press forward with their own legal battles, and the NAACP’s ongoing assault on Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) gained new momentum as well. Ultimately, the Mendez et al. case paved the way for the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which, in Chief Justice Warren’s own words, concluded that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
The abolition of segregated schools closed a shameful chapter of our history. But when the difficult process of desegregation began, a new chapter opened.
As an entire generation of schoolchildren quickly learned, the legacy of segregation did not vanish with the stroke of a judge’s pen. The struggle to realize the American ideal of “a more perfect union” would continue for decades to come.
Our exhibition, A Class Action: The Grassroots Struggle for School Desegregation in California, is more than the history of a court case. It is an interactive, provocative, and inspiring exhibition that explores the history of a community, the emergence and impact of segregated schools, the grassroots effort to abolish these schools, the courtroom battles that ensued, and the new challenges posed by the process of desegregation.