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Latinx legal cases fight educational segregation

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

Lemon Grove Grammar School circa 1928

In honor of Latinx Heritage Month, I take a look back in history to highlight cases where our community fought institutional segregation in public education.

By Jonathan J. Higuera

In the canon of legal cases that helped end legal segregation in public schools, two cases out of California often get overlooked. In 1930-31, parents of Mexican American students in Lemon Grove, Calif., a bucolic agricultural community north of San Diego, took on a school board decision to move Mexican American students to a separate and inferior two-room school building apart from the Anglo students.

The subsequent struggle by the parents of those affected students to fight the decision and reverse the policy led to a court decision that did just that in the Superior Court of California. Judge Claude Chambers rescinded the board’s decision and allowed students to continue to attend school in the same facilities as white students. He rejected the school board’s arguments that the separation was in response to Mexican American students who did not have the necessary English-language skills and needed more “Americanization” skills.

The judge's decision was made partly on the basis of testimony from student Roberto Alvarez, who demonstrated his English proficiency on the stand.

The case, which came to be known as the Lemon Grove Incident, was nearly lost to the dustbin of history. The school council had come up with the separate school plan behind closed doors and did not document the proposed changes in writing. However, when the parents of the Mexican-American students learned of the plan – the students were stopped at the schoolhouse door by the principal and directed to the other building – they kept their children out of school in a boycott and formed a committee of parents to fight the policy change. With community support, they were able to hire a lawyer and challenge the policy in court. Remarkably, the parents' courage happened in a milieu of fear and anxiety among the Mexican U.S. population. Xenophobia amidst the great Depression had led to the deportation and repatriation of thousands, perhaps millions, of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, with the latter being U.S. citizens.

While the case was never used as legal precedent for ending state sanctioned school segregation, it was among the first, if not the first, case to challenge legal segregation in public education. It also demonstrated the courage, power and agency of parents willing to fight for equal opportunities for their children.

The other case occurred in 1947 in Orange County, Calif. The outcome of that case, Méndez vs. Westminster, was a precursor to the Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education case, which is often cited as the case that ended the separate but equal doctrine in public education. In fact, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall submitted a friend of the court brief on behalf of the Westminster plaintiffs. The case involved a mother and father, Gonzalo and Felicitas Méndez, whose three children were turned away from an elementary school for “whites only”, that the father himself had attended. They, along with four other families, challenged the Orange County school district’s boundaries around Mexican and Mexican American neighborhoods that ensured de facto segregation.

During a two-week trial, the Méndez family's attorney, David Marcus, took the then-unusual approach of presenting social science evidence to support his argument that segregation resulted in feelings of inferiority among Mexican American children that could undermine their ability to be productive Americans. U.S. District Court Judge Paul J. McCormick agreed with the plaintiffs and ordered that the school districts cease their "discriminatory practices against the pupils of Mexican descent in the public schools."

Again, the testimony of a student, this time 8-year-old student Sylvia Méndez, helped convince Judge Paul McCormick that prohibiting the students to attend the better resourced elementary school “was a clear denial of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” While the Orange County School District appealed the decision, it dropped its opposition after the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Judge McCormick’s decision.

The case served as a precedent in “cracking school segregation in Texas and Arizona,” commented some observers. Although segregated schools remained widespread in California and elsewhere throughout the Southwest, some legal observers opined the case signaled the ‘death knell’ of Jim Crow segregation. Undoubtedly, it did play a significant role in creating legal precedent that eventually culminated in the 1954 Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sylvia Méndez, the then 8-year-old at the heart of the court case, received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 and has continued to be a presence speaking to students and civil rights advocates all across the country about the landmark ruling.

During Latinx Heritage Month, as we reflect on the amazing contributions of Latinx Ed leaders, let us remember that sometimes the courage to challenge the system can be found in an 8-year-old student like Sylvia Méndez who simply wanted to learn.

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