Editorial: How Mexican immigrants ended ‘separate but equal’ in California

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In the coverage of the 2016 election cycle, you’ll hear this time and again: Latinos — immigrants and their families — are playing an important role in electing the next U.S. president. They are the largest minority group in the nation, and they are poised to make a major impact on American democracy.

It won’t be the first time. Seventy years ago, Mexican immigrants moved American civil rights forward, away from racial segregation toward integration and equality. It happened eight years before the Supreme Court began to dismantle segregation by handing down its decision in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.

In 1943, five Mexican American families took four school districts in Orange County to court, challenging the “separate but equal” education their American-born children were getting in “Mexican schools.” They knew their kids were treated as second-class citizens: taught by underpaid teachers, forced to use books and desks discarded by Anglo students, relegated to shoddy school buildings where the classrooms had so little light that reading was almost impossible.

The lack of resources, however, wasn’t what the plaintiffs in the case, Mendez et al vs. Westminster et al, complained about to the courts. Instead, they mounted a frontal attack on segregated schools, even though to many other enemies of segregation, the time wasn’t right. Thurgood Marshall, founder of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, was convinced that federal courts weren’t ready to strike down segregation. Instead of asking them to do so, the NAACP had adopted a tactic of bringing case after case designed to force Southern states to make separate schools truly equal. The goal was to make “separate but equal” so expensive that the states would give it up.



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