Separate Is Not Equal - Brown v. Board of Education

Smithsonian National Museum of American History Behring Center

Segregated America
The Battleground
  • The Educated Citizen
  • Quest for Education
  • Pursuit of Equality
Legal Campaign
Five Communities Change a Nation
The Decision

In Pursuit of Equality

Méndez v. Westminster

By law, school districts in California segregated American Indian and Asian children. They also commonly placed Latino and African American students in separate programs. In the early 1940s Felícitas and Gonzalo Méndez tried to enroll their three children in the local all-white Westminster Elementary School. When school officials refused, the Méndezes joined other families and filed suit. On March 2, 1945, a group of parents, with the support of the League of United Latin American Citizens, filed a class action suit in federal court against segregated schools in Orange County. They argued that separate schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment.

Photograph of Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez

Felícitas and Gonzalo Méndez

(Courtesy of “Fire in the Morning” Collection, Yolanda Alvarez and Steve Demara)
“ The paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality. ”
— Judge Paul J. McCormick, Méndez v. Westminster, 1945

Photograph of the Mendez class

Méndez v. Westminster

Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled in favor of the parents, and appellate courts upheld his decision. In 1947 California Governor Earl Warren pushed through legislation ending school segregation for American Indian and Asian children. This photograph shows students from Lincoln Elementary School for “Mexican” children in Orange County, California, 1930s.
(Courtesy of “Fire in the Morning” Collection, Yolanda Alvarez and Steve Demara)

Photograph of LULAC fundraising event

LULAC fundraising event

The League of United Latin American Citizens aided the Méndez family and held fundraisers across the county to support the case. The Japanese American Citizens League, the American Jewish Congress, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and many other civil rights groups submitted legal arguments in support of the case.
(Courtesy of Hector Tarango)
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