While Brown v. Board of Education is a widely known landmark Supreme Court case, few can trace its origins to the case of nine-year-old Sylvia Mendez in Mendez v. Westminster.
Sylvia’s case, which was decided in the federal courts in California, preceded Brown by about eight years. Thurgood Marshall represented Sylvia Mendez and Linda Brown. Marshall used some of the same arguments from Mendez to win Brown v. Board of Education.
About Mendez v. Westminster
Sylvia Mendez, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a 2011 White House ceremony, was a child when she was turned away from a California public school for "whites only." That rejection fueled her father's determined journey through school, civic, and legal channels. Gonzalo Mendez, represented by a civil rights attorney, took four Los Angeles-area school districts to court and won a class action lawsuit at the trial and appellate levels of the federal court system.
Ms. Mendez carries on the legacy of Mendez v. Westminster when she explains that her parents taught her:
"That we are all individuals; that we are all human beings; that we are all connected together; and that we all have the same rights, the same freedom."
Unusual Trial Evidence
During a two-week trial, the Mendez 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."
U.S District Court Decision
In his decision Judge McCormick wrote: "'[t]he equal protection of the laws pertaining to the public school system in California is not provided by furnishing in separate schools the same technical facilities, textbooks and courses of instruction to children of Mexican ancestry that are available to the other public school children regardless of their ancestry. A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality. It must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage."
U.S. Court of Appeals Decision
The school districts appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The Court of Appeals affirmed Judge McCormick's ruling. Two months later, California's Governor Earl Warren signed a bill ending school segregation in California, making it the first state to officially desegregate its public schools.
Setting the Stage for Brown v. Board of Education
While the case was pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, several organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed amicus (friend of the court) briefs. Writing for the NAACP was Thurgood Marshall who, five years later, used similar reasoning before the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The Supreme Court adopted many of Marshall's arguments and, in 1954, issued an opinion ending school segregation throughout the United States. The opinion was written by Chief Justice Earl Warren.
About Sylvia Mendez
Sylvia Mendez went on to earn degrees in nursing and became the Assistant Nursing Director of the Pediatric Pavilion at the Los Angeles University of Southern California Medical Center. Since her retirement, she has dedicated her time to educating students about the Mendez case and encouraging young people to stay in school. In 2007, the United States Post Office issued a stamp commemorating Mendez v. Westminster. In 2009, the Los Angeles Unified School District dedicated a new East Los Angeles high school, Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez Learning Center.