The Museum of Tolerance is hosting a webinar for educators on Wednesday, March 9 featuring author Janice Munemitsu, whose new book documents the bond between two local families during the legal fight to desegregate Orange County schools.
“The Kindness of Color: A Fundamental Story in California’s History of Segregation and Desegregation” will also include panelists from the Orange County Department of Education who will talk about the importance of the story and how it can be taught in the classroom. The event will take place from 2:30 to 4 p.m. and is free to California educators who register in advance.
Munemitsu is set to lead an in-depth discussion on her book “The Kindness of Color,” which she self-published last year. The autobiographical story chronicles her family’s connection with the Mendez family, which successfully pursued one of the most consequential court cases in the state’s history, Mendez, et al v. Westminster.
After her presentation, there will be a Q&A and a panel discussion with Dennis Cole, director of District Partnerships and Operations in OCDE’s Alternative Education division, and Dr. Jeff Hittenberger, professor of education in the Graduate Education Program at Vanguard University (and formerly OCDE’s chief academic officer). Orange County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares will deliver an introductory welcome, and participants will receive a signed copy of Janice Munemitsu’s book.
Family stories intersect
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the final ruling in the case of Mendez v. Westminster, which ended with a landmark victory on behalf of approximately 5,000 Mexican-American children who were unjustly denied access to quality neighborhood schools. Janice Munemitsu’s book specifically tells the story of two immigrant families whose stories intersected along the way.
During the Second World War, the Munemitsus were forced off their farm in Westminster and sent to internment camps with other Japanese American families as a result of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Before they left, the Munemitsu family leased their land to Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez, who in 1943 sought to enroll their daughter Sylvia and sons Jerome and Gonzalo, Jr. at their local neighborhood school.
Mendez v. Westminster
Even though they were American citizens, the Mendezes were told their children could not attend 17th Street School because of their Mexican heritage, and they were directed to a less desirable campus known as “the Mexican school.”
After their appeals to district leaders failed, Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez teamed up with four other families and filed a lawsuit in federal court. Their victory in 1946, upheld by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals a year later, ultimately laid the foundation for the U.S. Supreme Court to declare racially segregated schools unconstitutional in the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education decision.
The Munemitsus returned to their farm after the war ended, and for a brief time the two families lived and worked together, forging enduring friendships. Case in point: Sylvia Mendez, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 for her efforts to promote education and awareness of her family’s case, has authored the foreword to “The Kindness of Color.”