Mijares: Seventy years later, the legacy of a landmark court case lives on

In 1943, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez did what many Orange County families do each year — they sought to enroll their children in their neighborhood school.

But they were turned away from 17th Street School in Westminster and directed instead to a less desirable campus serving students of Mexican descent. Whites attend one campus, the family was told; those with darker complexions and Mexican surnames must go to another.

An image of Orange County Superintendent Al MijaresGonzalo and Felicitas Mendez did not accept this premise. They joined forces with four other Orange County families and took legal action on behalf of 5,000 boys and girls who were unjustly channeled into segregated schools in the 1940s. Following a groundbreaking 1946 victory in the U.S. District Court, the case was appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the ruling on April 14, 1947.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the resolution to Mendez et al v. Westminster, which had profound ramifications not just for Orange County but our entire nation. Indeed, it laid the foundation for the monumental Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, with the United States Supreme Court declaring once and for all that segregated schools were in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez
Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez

The Mendez case is worthy of commemoration for reasons that go beyond merely acknowledging a past injustice. This case should be celebrated as an affirmation of our values, including our commitment to providing universal access to public schools that are safe, equitable and staffed with high-quality educators. It should further remind us of our role to protect those student populations with the greatest needs, including those most vulnerable to shifting political winds and ill-considered policy decisions.

Seventy years after winning their landmark case, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez are no longer with us, but Sylvia Mendez, who was just 9 at the time she and brothers Geronimo and Gonzalo were denied entry into school, continues to speak about her family’s extraordinary stance. And in Orange County, the Mendez’ legacy is everywhere.

Our schools — more than 600 in total — are diverse learning environments that promote inclusivity and tolerance along with rigorous instruction geared toward college and career readiness. Each day, teachers, administrators and staff at these sites welcome half a million students of all backgrounds, and the Orange County Department of Education supports their work.

The story of Mendez et al v. Westminster offers proof that status quo isn’t our preordained path, and that courage and persistence in the face of entrenched biases can yield positive change. More important, the 500,000 children who show up at our schools each morning — some defying tough odds to do so — remind us daily of our responsibility to advocate powerfully on behalf of all Orange County students.