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Pivotal civil rights case you probably never heard about

Several years before a welder named Oliver Brown decided his daughter ought to be able to attend the public school nearest his home in Topeka, Kansas, a prosperous Mexican-American asparagus farmer named Gonzalo Mendez became incensed that a school across the street from his ranch in Orange County, Calif., refused to admit his children.

Mendez’s oldest daughter, Sylvia, told the story during NSBA’s Annual Conference in Denver on Sunday at the National Hispanic Council of School Board Members Breakfast. While her family’s lawsuit -- Mendez v. Westminister [sic] School District of Orange County -- is less well-known than Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, both cases played important roles in U.S. civil rights history.

“Someone has got to go out and tell the story,” her mother told Sylvia near the end of her life.

“I said, ‘Mother, I am a nurse. I know how to say open your mouth and take a pill. I can’t do it.’” But her mother assured her she could, and since then Mendez has spoken at countless schools and universities, hoping to inspire Latino students to pursue graduate degrees. (A bachelor’s degree these days is just the equivalent of what used to be a high school education, she explained.)

Besides some childhood taunts, Mendez said her enrollment went smoothly in her integrated school after the court ruling and new state law in California. Nothing like what happened in Little Rock, Ark., she added.

Today, de facto segregation has replaced unlawful discrimination, Mendez observed. Many civil rights injustices continue, she said.

“When people see Latinos, they don’t see us as decision makers,” she said. “They see us as consumers, not as producers ... as lawbreakers; they don’t see us as law enforcers. They see us as tax expenditures not as tax contributors. I say we need to change these stereotypes.”

While she characterizes the Mendez lawsuit as laying the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education, she admits that the decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is not mentioned in the Brown decision – not even a footnote.

Nevertheless, it was the trial judge in the Mendez case -- Senior District Judge Paul J. McCormick -- who became the first member of the federal judiciary to shove a legal dagger into the heart of Plessy v. Ferguson, saying “Separate is not equal.”

And Robert Carter, author of the NAACP brief in the Brown case, has said the arguments made by the plaintiffs in the Mendez were his model as he drafted arguments for attorney Thurgood Marshall, who later became a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mendez continues to travel the country to speak about her family’s success in the courts. “If I can inspire students to stay in school by describing the Mendez case, I know I will have fulfilled my father’s legacy.”

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