*As young people return to school across the nation, it’s worthwhile to remember that, for children of color, education is not only the best opportunity for personal growth and career readiness – education is also an obligation we have to those who came before us.
“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. . .”
With those historic words, Chief Justice Earl Warren articulated the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling outlawing school segregation in the 1954 case of Brown v the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas. Seven years before the Brown decision, when he was governor of California, Earl Warren signed legislation banning racial and ethnic segregation in the public schools of the Golden State. That law grew out of the case of Mendez v. Westminster, the landmark court fight that set the stage for Brown.
After his daughter Sylvia was denied admission to the local elementary school because she was Mexican American, a Southern California farmer named Gonzalo Mendez joined forces with four other Latino fathers and sued five school districts in Orange County, California. The U.S. District Court ruled in favor of the Mendez plaintiffs in 1946 and that ruling was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1947.
The Latino parents in the Mendez case received support from NAACP lawyers Thurgood Marshall and Robert L. Carter who filed an amicus brief during the appeals stage. Friend of the court filings were also submitted by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Congress and the Japanese-American Citizens League. The cross-cultural unity displayed in the Mendez case underscored the truths that Martin Luther King would articulate decades later — that “we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny” and that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Mendez v. Westminster also tested the legal strategy that led to victory in Brown v. Board of Education. David Marcus, the Jewish attorney who represented the Mendez plaintiffs, successfully argued that racial segregation in schools imposed a false sense of inferiority among children of color. Thurgood Marshall made that same point when he argued the Brown case before the US Supreme Court.
Attorneys Marcus and Marshall exposed the ultimate goal of school segregation: to reinforce the wicked lie of white racial superiority by indoctrinating children. Andrew Moulder, who was California’s state superintendent of schools a century before Mendez and Brown (from 1856 to 1861), essentially admitted that racist agenda. Moulder infamously justified the segregation of Black, Asian and Native-American school children when he declared, “The great mass of our citizens will not associate in terms of equality with these inferior races, nor will they consent that their children do so.”
Mendez v. Westminster and Brown v. the Board of Education are two important reminders of the hard fights waged by our forebears to ensure that we could have a fair and equal opportunity for education. We owe it to them to take full advantage of those opportunities!
Education is the key to the knowledge that opens the doors to life’s unlimited possibilities. So, when students of color take their studies seriously, when they consume knowledge with diligence, enthusiasm and pride they are not only preparing themselves to compete in the job market they are fulfilling an obligation to all of those who struggled and sacrificed to break down the barriers of racist discrimination in order that we might have a more fair and equal chance to live up to our potential.
Thanks for listening. I’m Cameron Turner and that’s my two cents.