Latino Desegregation and Its Role in the Brown v. Board of Education Ruling

by multilingualmania on October 2, 2011

in Advocacy, History

mendezclass
For years, the focus on Brown v. Board of Education and the African American Civil Rights Movement has colored the desegregation discussion entirely in black and white. What few realize is that it was Mexican American children in California who also paved the way for black students in Kansas to defend against inherently contradictory “separate but equal” policies.

The California Superior Court’s 1931 ruling in Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District, a case disputing the separation of Mexican American students from their all-Anglo peers, marked the first successful desegregation case in United States history, followed in 1947 by a similar decision by the Ninth Circuit on Mendez v. Westminster—another case affecting California’s Mexican American community. When Brown v. Board rocked the town of Topeka, Kansas in 1954, Mendez was an invaluable tool in crafting NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall’s argument. (The amicus brief Marshall filed for Mendez doubled as his cheat sheet for Brown.)

If Mendez v. Westminster set the stage for Brown, the Lemon Grove Incident built the original platform. In 1930, the San Diego suburb of Lemon Grove was working hard to woo wealthy business owners to its folds while distancing the town’s image from that of its Mexican migrant worker population. But on January 5, 1931, school trustees took it a step too far when they ordered principal Jerome T. Green to forbid Mexican elementary students from entering their classrooms, directing the children to a rundown farm building instead. The Mexican community rallied together in court and won its desegregation case, Alvarez v. The Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District, though the ruling was merely symbolic as it had no precedent-setting effect. What Lemon Grove did do was empower Chicano communities in California to defend their children against prejudice and discrimination, feeding a fire that was raging at full force by the time Mendez v. Westminster hit the 9th Circuit in 1947.

Inspired by the brave families who lobbied for justice in Lemon Grove, Gonzalo Mendez refused to heed the Westminster school district’s mandate to send his children to a school for students of Mexican descent. Four other fathers joined him in a class-action lawsuit as did the NAACP’s attorneys, among them Thurgood Marshall, on appeal. Mendez marked the first case in history to successfully challenge segregation in federal court and many have speculated that it prepared California Governor turned Chief Justice Earl Warren for his pivotal role in presiding over the Brown court.

The connections between Lemon Grove, Mendez, and Brown prove just how much black and latino populations have in common—namely a shared history of marginalization by the ruling class and a fighting spirit to stand up, seek justice, and seize power for their people. Reflecting on the inadvertent synergy that took place between blacks and latinos over a half century ago, I can’t help but wonder what other social and political transformation these communities could sow were they to unify across racial lines today.

Related Articles:
The History of Bilingual Education as a Civil Right in the United States-Part One
The History of Bilingual Education as a Civil Right in the United States-Part Two
The History of Bilingual Education as a Civil Right in the United States-Part Three

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