Expanding on the Miné Okubo Collection, history and the arts, and social justice in the Inland Empire…

A Class Action: The Grassroots Struggle for School Desegregation in California

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Mendez school pic

Center hosts new exhibit in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month

In 1943, 9-year-old student Sylvia Mendez was turned away from a “whites only” public school in Orange County, California. She was told that she and her siblings had to register at the “Mexican” school, ten blocks away from the 17th Street School in Westminster.

Her parents, appalled at the blatant discrimination, rejected the school’s refusal, and began a determined journey to make a change. On March 2, 1945, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez and four other Mexican American families filed Mendez et al. v. Westminster School District et al., a class-action lawsuit against four Orange County school districts seeking an injunction that would order the schools to integrate.

Mendez image

Segregation was common practice in California schools in the 1940s. The idea of “separate but equal” institutions, established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, was the American standard. The Mendez case was a major breakthrough in dismantling this status quo. After two years of fighting, the families won their case at the trial and appellate levels of the federal court system with the help of attorney David Marcus, setting an important precedent for desegregation. The Mendez lawsuit helped lay the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 U.S Supreme Court case that abolished legal segregation in schools.

In conjunction with the Justice John G. Gabbert Historic Oral Argument and Lecture on the Mendez case, held at the Riverside Court of Appeals on August 28th, the Center is hosting the special exhibit A Class Action: The Grassroots Struggle for School Desegregation in California, from August 29th – October 4th. It tells the story of this landmark lawsuit and reveals how community organizing and grassroots activism can produce positive change in schools and communities.

Mendez logo

Created by the Museum of Teaching and Learning in Fullerton, California, this exhibit provides a space where visitors can explore the case, its origins, and how its legacy has inspired others to make a difference. Join us during open hours on Saturdays 10am-4pm, First Thursdays from 6-9pm, and First Sundays 1-4pm, and explore this inspiring exhibit!

This post was contributed by volunteer Danielle Sanchez.

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