Tomorrow marks the 60th anniversary of one of the pivotal early moments of AmericaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Civil Rights Movement. Yet few are aware that the court decision that laid the groundwork for Brown vs. Board of Education happened right here in Orange County. On April 14, 1947 a court ruled in Mendez vs. Westminster that it was discriminatory and unconstitutional to send children of Mexican descent to separate (often inferior) schools.
Post-war Orange County was a much different place than the OC of today. Groves of oranges, lemons, walnuts, olives, and lima beans stretched for miles between small farm towns. Each of these towns had a barrio or two where the people who worked in these fields usually lived, often in small unpainted shacks that lacked electricity, heat, or running water. The children of these barrios were not permitted to attend the same schools as their non-Mexican peers. Instead, they were sent to run-down schools with outdated books and second-hand playground equipment. A few parents recognized the inherent inequality in their childrenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s education and tried to do something about it.
Many of these parents had just returned from fighting the armies of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito overseas. They had left their families behind to risk their lives for our country. Yet they returned to an America where they were prohibited from moving outside of the barrio or sending their children to a well-maintained neighborhood school. So when Gonzalo Mendez, Thomas Estrada, William Guzman, Frank Palomino, and Lorenzo Ramirez (and their wives, who remain strangely anonymous) tried to enroll their children in school and were refused, they filed suit against the school districts of Westminster, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, and El Modena. They were labeled troublemakers by many. But that would not stop them from putting their livelihoods, longtime friendships and personal safety on the line to ensure equality of opportunity for their own children and all the children of California.
60 years ago this week, the parents won when the 9th Circuit Court ruled to uphold the decision of Judge Paul McCormick, despite an appeal filed by the school districts. Segregation in public educational facilities became illegal. California was the first in the nation to integrate itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s schools. Seven years later, the case was cited as precedent in the Brown decision that ended segregation in schools nationwide.
Today, the remaining plaintiffs are octogenarians. The schoolkids are now senior citizens with grandchildren. And their significant contribution to equality and civil rights remains a footnote in most history books. Revolutions, I think, are often incremental in nature.
On Saturday morning, the US Postal Service will unveil a postage stamp honoring the 60th Anniversary of the Mendez decision. This is a small but well-deserved symbol. These plaintiffs are Orange CountyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s own Rosa Parks figures. Their simple act of defiance changed the course of history for the entire nation. They took tremendous risks for the children and grandchildren of their neighbors. They challenged the flaws in the system by refusing to sit back and accept inequality. They are my heroes and my inspiration.
I am excited to meet some of them on Saturday morning at the unveiling of the postage stamp at Chapman University, 9 am to 12 noon at Beckman Hall (see details at www.chapman.edu/mendez). I owe them a great deal. It really is the very least I can do to pay them back.
Philosopher George Santayana wrote “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Let’s take a few hours Saturday to remember our history in Orange County, flaws and all. And spend a moment to reflect upon how far we’ve come, while recognizing that there is further yet to go.