The Lasting Impact of Mendez v. Westminster in the Struggle for Desegregation
Years before the U.S. Supreme Court ended racial segregation in U.S. schools with Brown v. Board of Education, a federal circuit court in California ruled that segregation of school children was unconstitutional—except this case involved the segregation of Mexican American school children. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reached this historic decision in the case of Mendez v. Westminster in 1947—seven years before Brown. Historic in its own right, Mendez was critical to the strategic choices and legal analysis used in arguing Brown and in shaping the ideas of a young NAACP attorney, Thurgood Marshall. Moreover, the Mendez case—which originated with LULAC but benefited from the participation of the NAACP—also symbolized the important crossover between different ethnic and racial groups who came together to argue in favor of desegregation.
From a legal perspective, Mendez v. Westminster was the first case to hold that school segregation itself is unconstitutional and violates the 14th Amendment. Prior to the Mendez decision, some courts, in cases mainly filed by the NAACP, held that segregated schools attended by African American children violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause because they were inferior in resources and quality, not because they were segregated.
From a strategic perspective, Thurgood Marshall’s participation in Mendez paid critical dividends for years to come. Marshall, who later would successfully argue the Brown v. Board of Education case before the U.S. Supreme Court and eventually become the first African American Justice on the Supreme Court, participated in the Mendez appeal. His collaboration throughout the case with the Mendez attorney, David Marcus, helped ensure that the case would be an important legal building block for Marshall’s successful assault on the “separate but equal” doctrine. Although Marshall and Marcus differed in aspects of their legal approach to the segregation involved in the Mendez case, their exchanges about the stigma attached to segregation and the psychological damage caused by it undoubtedly played a large role in the Mendez litigation.
The link between Mexican Americans and African Americans in the struggle for desegregation has been obscured with time. Revisiting that link is important not only to understand the historic underpinnings of Brown, but also to realize one of the great truths in the struggle for equality: the consecutive and continuous movements to cast off the many varied mechanisms of subordination result from an iterative process of developing and connecting strategies and struggles between and among different peoples.