It was more than 70 years ago when Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez decided to fight for their children’s constitutional right to attend their neighborhood public school with White children, regardless of their skin color. On April 14, 1947, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an earlier ruling in their favor. Their class-action lawsuit proved that “separate but equal” is inherently unconstitutional and their case was the first successful challenge of segregation in California’s public schools. This was seven years before Brown v. Board of Education cited Mendez v. Westminster School District as a legal precedent to desegregate schools across the country.
As a student of color, I will forever be grateful that Mr. and Mrs. Mendez stood up for the rights of all students — not just their own children. When they sued the school district and it seemed likely they would win, the district offered to enroll their children in the school of their choice if they let the case go. Fortunately, they knew they were fighting for something greater than themselves and took the stance of “it’s all of us or none of us.” Thanks to their courage, they led the way for students like me to legally receive an equitable public education.
I grew up in Long Beach, California. My family and I lived in a dilapidated building where conditions such as a working bathroom were not always a given. My neighborhood school was plagued with gangs, drugs and violence. So when it came time for me attend middle school, my parents were afraid of what might happen to me. They opted to enroll me in schools located in safer neighborhoods, far away from my house, where I would receive a quality education. The schools I attended served the neighborhood of Naples, a wealthy and predominately White area in Long Beach. They were full of resources, great teachers and — like the rest of the neighborhood — beautiful and safe. I received an excellent public education because, years before, a group of parents made it my constitutional right to access a quality education in the same schools as my wealthy, White counterparts.
Mendez paved the way, legally and morally, to desegregate schools, which hit its highest point in the 1980s. Yet today, schools are as segregated as they were in the 1940s and 1950s. Institutional and systemic racism, poverty and zoning laws have ensured that low-income students of color stay in their segregated schools. I’ve worked my entire adult life in public education, most of it in South Central Los Angeles and Watts. The schools I’ve worked in have only Black and Brown children — all of them living below the poverty line. The schools available to them were like my childhood apartment building: falling apart. Even though Mendez established that these students should be able to access schools like the ones attended by the kids in Naples, they cannot. Mendez v. Westminster is more important today than ever. We need to be reminded that segregation is illegal, no matter what form it takes.
In January, at the annual Broad Center Forum, I had the honor of meeting the catalyst for Mendez: Sylvia Mendez. She is the child of Felicitas and Gonzalo who was turned away from the neighborhood “White school” because she was too Brown to pass for White. Sylvia travels the country reminding us that her parents fought for school integration and that it is up to us to make sure their work was not in vain.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.” We need to do more than celebrate and remember what Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez did more than 70 years ago. We need to honor them by making sure the souls of our children are free from distortion and their humanity is undamaged.
Maria Razo is the operations manager of The Broad Center’s Partner Strategy team.