Remembering Felícitas Gómez Martínez de Méndez: Separate is not equal (Civil Rights Champion before Martin Luther King)

Remembering Felícitas Gómez Martínez de Méndez: Separate is not equal –

Civil Rights Champion before Martin Luther King
Civil Rights Champion before Martin Luther King

Felicítas Gómez Martínez de Méndez and her husband Gonzalo Méndez

By Gregorio Igartúa

When one thinks about the civil rights movement in the nation, cases and personalities come to mind. Indisputably, the name of Dr. Martin Luther King and the case of Brown v Board of Education is among these. Not too many people remember the name of Felícitas Gómez Martínez de Méndez (born Feb. 5, 1916 in Juncos, Puerto Rico) in these pursuits, nor of her Mexican husband, Gonzalo Méndez. Both led an educational civil rights battle to integrate schools in California and end segregation. All legal expenses were paid from the income of a small farm they owned.

Two cases were litigated in federal courts, both were won by them and other members of the class action. Most important to know is that their cases set the legal precedent for ending segregation, not only in California but in the whole nation. The cases were legal precedent to the well-known case of Brown v Board of Education (347 US 483, 1954), which revoked Plessy v Ferguson (163 US 537, 1896), which had allowed school segregation throughout our country for years, under the veil of separate but equal.

US Stamp = September 13, 2007 

US Stamp = September 13, 2007 Mendez v. Westminster Stamp

Briefly, the case facts were related to a member of the Méndez family (daughter Sylvia Méndez), and to other families whose children were turned away from a California public school for whites only. They were forced to register in a school for Mexicans only, segregated from white students, and with a low quality of education. The rejection fueled the parents’ determined legal fight, channeled through a civil rights attorney, in a class action suit won at the district and appeals court levels of the federal court system. The case at the district court level, Méndez v. Westminster, was decided in 1946 (C.D. Cal. 1946-64 F. Supp. 544), and was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1947 (161 F2d 774).

The U.S. District Court opinion judicially disposed of that a paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality. It must be open to all children. Thus it was an important legal precedent for ending the enduring de jure segregation in the United States.

Two months after the appeals court opinion, California governor Earl Warren signed a bill ending school segregation in the state, making it the first state to officially desegregate its public schools. Warren later became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and would write the opinion in Brown v Board of Education.

The case that integrated schools in California preceded Brown v Board of Education by about eight years and was litigated by lead counsel Thurgood Marshall, who used most of the same arguments from the Méndez case later in Brown v Board of Education. In fact, the Supreme Court adopted many of Marshall’s arguments in the 1954 opinion. Marshall later became an associate U.S. Supreme Court justice.

In 2007, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating Méndez v. Westminster.

In 2009, a school was dedicated in New East Los Angeles to Felícitas and Gonzalo Méndez. The case was also the basis for the awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 to daughter Sylvia Méndez by President Obama.

A good moral compass and perseverance can lead to fundamental changes in our society. They are precisely the values that President Biden and his Department of Justice ignored when confronted by the arguments and principles set forth in the U.S. v Vaello case. Likewise, those exposed in Igartua v U.S. in 2000, where the district court decided that the American citizens of Puerto Rico could vote in presidential elections, but President Clinton ordered his Justice Department to appeal the opinion, which was then revoked. Two million ballots were burned on American soil.

Three million American citizens continue to be under the servitude of discriminatory denial of government by consent of the governed, notwithstanding Amendment XV of the U.S. Constitution.

Felícitas taught her children that we are all individuals, that we are all human beings, that we are all connected together, and that we all have the same rights, the same freedom.

Felícitas’ fight for equality is a human rights example of what can be achieved peacefully and by justice. Let’s celebrate what Felícitas and her husband did. Their fight is in our hearts. Equal rights also in Puerto Rico.

“Porque se puede.”

Gregorio Igartúa is an attorney with a practice in San Juan.

Sept. 14, Mendez v. Westminster School District. Single 41¢ commemorative stamp, pane of 20; AP; Santa Ana, CA 92711; Linn’s Sept. 11, 2006, page 1; Sept. 10, page 1; USPS item No. 461640 (pane), 461661 (FDC at 79¢); Scott 4201.

Mendez v. Westminster Commemorative Stamp

September 13, 2007 

Mendez v. Westminster Stamp

A World War II-era legal case in which a group of civic-minded parents in California successfully sued to end segregation based on national origin in their schools, the Mendez et al. v. Westminster School District of Orange County et al. court case will be remembered on a U.S. postage stamp during its 60th anniversary.

As immigrants who came to the United States when they were children, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez dreamed the American dream. He was born in Mexico and she was from Puerto Rico, but they met and married in California. So it came as an insult when, in 1943, the elementary school in Westminster, a farm community south of Los Angeles where Gonzalo and Felicitas made their home, closed its doors to their three children.

Segregated public schools were common at that time. In California and throughout the Southwest, children of Mexican descent attended specially designated ‘Mexican schools,’ frequently in inferior facilities. Discriminatory practices were also common in movie theaters, where Mexican patrons were required to sit in the balcony, and at public swimming pools, where they were welcome only on designated ‘Mexican days.’

After his children were turned away from the Westminster School in the autumn of 1943, Gonzalo Mendez went to discuss the situation with school officials. The school board offered his children ‘special admission’ — but on March 2, 1945, Gonzalo Mendez and several other Hispanic parents sued four school districts (Westminster, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, and El Modena) on behalf of some 5,000 children. Their groundbreaking lawsuit became known as Mendez v. Westminster.

Arguing for the plaintiffs in court, attorney David Marcus attacked the prevailing notion of ‘separate but equal,’ a rationalization that it was acceptable to offer separate public facilities based on national origin or other criteria so long as the facilities were comparable. Marcus argued that they were not comparable, presenting testimony from parents and students as well as sociologists and educators, who testified that ‘separate but equal’ treatment made children feel inferior and prevented them from entering mainstream American culture.

The plaintiffs argued successfully that such practices on the part of California schools violated their Constitutional rights. On February 18, 1946, Federal District Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled that merely providing the same textbooks, courses, and comparable facilities in separate schools doesn’t give students equal protection under the law, and that social equality is ‘a paramount requisite’ in America’s public school system.

The school districts appealed, but the decision was upheld when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled on April 14, 1947, that the schools could not segregate on the basis of national origin. The opinion was specifically decided on the more narrow ground of whether state law allowed segregation based upon Mexican descent. The Court held that no statutes existed allowing this but that such discrimination had been carried out ‘under color or pretense’ of law. On June 14, 1947, a statute allowing segregated schools for Asians and Indians was repealed (effective September 19) by California governor Earl Warren, who later was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Mendez decision set an important if indirect legal precedent for cases in other states and at the national level. In 1954, Warren was chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court when it issued its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring segregation illegal nationwide. Earlier, Thurgood Marshall was one of the authors of an amicus brief submitted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the Mendez case. That brief later served as a model for the argument used in Brown v. Board of Education. The American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Congress, and the Japanese American Citizens League were also among those who filed amicus briefs in the Mendez case.

In 1998 the Santa Ana School Board named a new school in honor of Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez. An exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History included details on Mendez et al. v. Westminster School District et al. as well. In 2004, the Mendez family was honored at the White House for playing an important part in the history of American civil rights.

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