Some legal history in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month

In the 1940s, a group of Hispanic-American parents led by Gonzalo Mendez filed a lawsuit on behalf of their children who were attending grade school in California’s Orange County.  The children were being segregated into separate facilities and being taught a different curriculum, both of which were inferior to what the white children were experiencing.  The parents argued that since they paid taxes and were law-abiding citizens, their children’s civil rights were being violated by the school district who would not allow their children to attend school with white children.

Their case was argued in the U.S. District Court of Southern California and they won in 1946.  However, the school district was upset by the district court’s verdict and appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  Several organizations submitted amicus briefs in support of Mendez and his fellow plaintiffs including the NAACP (represented by Thurgood Marshall), the American Jewish Congress, and the Japanese-American Citizens League.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision, finding that the children’s civil rights were violated.  Desegregation of the school system soon followed.  The case is Mendez v. Westminster School District of Orange County, 64 F.Supp. 544 (S.D. Cal. 1946), aff’d 161 F.2d 774 (9th Cir. 1947). 

A few years later, using Mendez v. Westminster as leverage, a group of Mexican-American parents in Arizona led by Porfirio Gonzales sued the Board of Trustees of Tolleson, Arizona for segregating their children in inferior facilities, thereby violating their civil rights.  They won a preliminary injunction against the school officials which declared the practices of the school system were discriminatory and illegal.  Their case was Gonzales v. Sheely, 96 F. Supp. 1004 (D. Arizona, 1951).

These two cases paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education (1954) which declared segregation of students in schools based on race was a violation of their civil rights and was therefore illegal.  I am thankful to these Hispanic men for having the courage to stand against such racist practices since their actions were catalysts that brought about many positive changes in this nation for people of all races and genders.  Their court cases are rarely (sometimes never) mentioned in the history classes taught across the U.S. when they should be taught about regularly since they are a vital part of American history.

–posted by Harry A. Gaylord–

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