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50 years after Brown:
Latinos paved way for
historic school desegregation case

by Carlos Munoz Jr.
Berkeley, California

As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, we should also remember Mendez v. Westminster.

In 1950, a 7-year-old African-American girl by the name of Linda Brown was denied admission to a white school near her home in Topeka, Kansas.

Her case resulted in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision known as Brown v. Board of Education that ended racial segregation in public schools. Its 50th anniversary is on May 17.

But six years earlier, in 1944, an 8-year-old Mexican American girl by the name of Sylvia Mendez had been denied admission to her local white school in Westminster, California.

Though most of the nation does not know about Sylvia, it was her case that struck the first blow against segregation in the United States. The case, known as Mendez v. Westminster, did not make the Supreme Court's docket. It did not need to since the lower federal courts decided in favor of Sylvia's case at the state level in 1945. The case marked the end of legal school segregation in California.

Most people remain unaware of the significance of this case.

While Brown was a major accomplishment in the push for equality, the Mendez case set the legal precedent that enabled the Brown attorneys to win their arguments before the Supreme Court.

What's more, two key players in the Brown case were involved in the Mendez case.

The first was an African-American lawyer by the name of Thurgood Marshall. Marshall, who was later appointed a Supreme Court justice in 1967, became the lead NAACP attorney in the 1954 Brown case. His amicus brief filed for Mendez on behalf of the NAACP contained the arguments he would later use in the Brown case.

The Mendez case also deeply influenced the thinking of the California governor at the time, Earl Warren. By 1954 when the Brown case appeared before the high court, Warren had become the chief justice.

Long before Brown v. Board of Education, Mexican Americans had engaged in numerous court battles against segregation. Those cases paved the way for the eventual victory achieved by Mendez and Brown.

The first Mexican American case, Salvatierra v. Independent School District, took place in Del Rio, Texas, in 1930. Jesus Salvatierra and other parents sued the town's school board on the grounds that Mexican American students were being deprived of the resources given white students. The district judge issued a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs but the state's higher courts later overturned it.

The following year in 1931, in a case known as Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District, Alvarez and others living in the Lemon Grove suburb of San Diego sued the school district when the principal of the local elementary school prevented Mexican American children from enrolling in his white school.

These cases were based on national origins and language, not on race.

Mexican Americans in the Southwest, just as African-Americans in the South, had to confront daily discrimination in all aspects of their lives. Not only did many of them have to attend "Mexican schools," they were also not allowed access to public places. Members of my family vividly remember signs that read, "No Niggers, No Mexicans, No Dogs."

Linda Brown and Sylvia Mendez symbolize the common history that African-Americans and Latinos share. With that comes a common responsibility to continue the struggle against the ongoing de-facto segregation of young people of color at all levels of our nation's educational system.

Carlos Munoz Jr. is an award-winning author and professor emeritus in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. © Carlos Munoz Jr.

Published in In Motion Magazine May 20, 2004.

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