The echo of Mendez v. Westminster 70 years later

28 Jul
-

by Vernon M. Billy

In May, Sylvia Mendez captivated CSBA’s Delegate Assembly with her recollection of the historic case in which she and her parents, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, fought to desegregate California schools. The heartfelt presentation brought to life the intensity, emotions and history of one of the most important education and civil rights cases of the last 70 years.

Prominent civil rights activist Robert L. Carter once described the history-altering civil rights case of Mendez v. Westminster as “a dry run for the future.” From a legal perspective, Mr. Carter’s words succinctly express the importance of the Mendez case, which came at a time when civil rights attorneys in California and across the country were waging an all-out legal assault against the forces of discrimination and segregation.

The echo of Sylvia’s description of her school continues to reverberate in the back of my mind, not only because of the unfortunate educational experience and memories that it left behind for her and for many in her generation, but also because it reinforces the importance of providing all of our students with a quality school facility.

A major victory in this ongoing struggle was won when the gavel fell on Mendez in February of 1946. Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled that Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez’ children, who were Mexican, could not be forced to attend separate schools from those reserved for white students — a ruling that therefore applied to all children of color in California. Upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1947 (seven years before the Supreme Court’s seminal Brown v. Board of Education decision), Mendez became the first major court case in California to ban the practice of segregating public schools based on race and ethnicity (the Supreme Court set the table for Mendez eight years earlier with its 1938 decision in Gaines v. Canada, a case that marked the dawn of a fundamental judicial reconsideration of the idea of “separate but equal” by striking down the practice of segregation by exclusion). Mendez v. Westminster would become a landmark decision in 1946 because it was both a federal case and was the first ruling to hold that school segregation itself is unconstitutional and violates the 14th Amendment. Other decisions finding that segregated schools violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause were issued by state courts. Critically, those decisions found that segregated, African-American schools violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause because they were inferior in resources and quality — not because they were segregated. Mendez v. Westminster went much further and upended the “separate but equal logic” of segregation.

But for the Mendez family, the case wasn’t just about segregation in our public schools, but was also about the underlying “conditions” into which some students were being forced to endure as a result of being segregated into inferior schools.

According to the family’s account to the L.A. Times, the Mendez children were sent to a Mexican-only school that was little more than a makeshift dust plot, described as “two wooden shacks in a dirt lot next to a cow pasture,” separated by an electric fence with decrepit desks and hand-me-down books. During her Delegate Assembly speech, Sylvia Mendez recalled eating lunch outside at this school, seated next to the pasture, covered in flies.

The echo of Sylvia’s description of her school continues to reverberate in the back of my mind, not only because of the unfortunate educational experience and memories that it left behind for her and for many in her generation, but also because it reinforces the importance of providing all of our students with a quality school facility.

In November, we have an opportunity to continue to support our students and address the school facilities needs and conditions that can have a significant impact on student learning by ensuring that Proposition 51, the $9 billion “Kindergarten Through Community College Public Education Facilities Bond Act of 2016” is approved by voters. If passed, this measure will provide $7 billion for K-12 facilities, of which $3 billion would be devoted to new construction and another $3 billion for modernization of existing facilities. According to polling data from the Public Policy Institute of California, 63 percent of likely voters would support Proposition 51.

Whether it is at school, at home or at work, many aspects of our lives are dictated by the conditions and environments in which we spend our time. As we fulfill our responsibility to provide California’s students with a quality education, we owe it to them to ensure they have more than what Sylvia had — that every student has a quality, safe and clean learning environment to pursue their academic goals.

And yes, the actual school building that students attend is only one aspect of the “conditions” that can affect their learning opportunity, but it is a very important one. If you have any doubts about that, just close your eyes and take a moment to let the description of Sylvia’s school environment echo in your mind for a minute:

“Two wooden shacks on a dirt lot next to a cow pasture.”

“Hand-me-down books.”

“An electric fence — which shocked one of my classmates…”

Once you’ve had enough of that echo, join me in helping to ensure that this generation of California’s students are going to school in facilities that will create a different kind of echo — one they will want to remember, not one they would rather forget.

Vernon M. Billy serves as the Chief Executive Officer/Executive Director for the California School Boards Association. Billy provides executive leadership for the association, which represents and serves the elected and appointed members of the governing boards of more than 1,000 school districts and county offices of education in California.

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