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CSBA to Honor Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient Sylvia Mendez on 70th Anniversary of Desegregating California Schools

Mendez v. Westminster case challenged “separate but equal” doctrine and ended era of “Mexican only” schools in California


Event: Presentation by Sylvia Mendez, plaintiff in Mendez v. Westminster desegregation case
Date: Saturday, May 14, 2016
Time: 11:30 a.m.
Place: Hyatt Regency Sacramento at Capitol Park
Media Availability for Interviews: 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.

SACRAMENTO, Calif., (May 13, 2016) – In 1943, a tenant-farming family from Orange County went to enroll their daughter, Sylvia Mendez, in the local elementary school. They ended up filing a suit that ultimately closed the book on de jure segregation in California public schools. On Saturday, May 14, Mendez will speak about her experience as a plaintiff in the landmark Mendez v. Westminster court case and her subsequent civil rights career in a speech to the California School Boards Association’s (CSBA) Delegate Assembly.

Despite its huge implications, including laying the foundation for the more heralded Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, Mendez v. Westminster is often overlooked. Sylvia Mendez has spent much of her adult life fighting for equity and educating others about the struggle to end school segregation in California, a legacy which earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

“It’s an honor to host and to learn from Sylvia, a living representation of the civil rights movement,” said CSBA President Chris Ungar. “The Mendez family made a tremendous sacrifice to help America live up to its ideals and we are trying to follow their example by creating a public school system that offers a high-quality education to all students, regardless of background.”

When Mendez was nine years old, she went with her two brothers, three cousins, and her aunt to enroll at the 17th St. School in Westminster. Her aunt’s children, who were half-Mexican with fairer skin and a French surname, were granted admission. The school refused to register the Mendez siblings who had darker complexions and a Spanish last name.

In response, the Mendezes and four other Mexican-American families filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 5,000 Mexican-American children against four Orange County school districts. The suit sought an injunction that would force the schools to integrate. In July of 1946, the U.S. Federal District Court in Los Angeles sided with the plaintiffs, a ruling that was upheld in 1947 by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Soon afterward, the state legislature—at the urging of then-governor Earl Warren—repealed school segregation laws aimed at Asian-American and Native American students. Seven years later, as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Warren delivered the opinion in Brown v. Board that ruled school segregation unconstitutional. Thurgood Marshall, who wrote an amicus brief for the plaintiffs in Mendez v. Westminster, used that decision as precedent in his arguments.

A 2003 documentary, “Mendez v. Westminster: For all the Children/Para Todos Los Ninos” won an Emmy for writer-producer Sandra Robbie, who will appear with Mendez and show a portion of the film to the CSBA delegates. In 2007, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative Mendez v. Westminster stamp. On Saturday, in the latest of a series of honors, Mendez will receive a special resolution recognizing her role in a watershed moment for public education and the difference she has made for all California students.

CSBA is a nonprofit association representing nearly 1,000 PreK-12 school districts

and county offices of education throughout California.