Setting the Precedent: Mendez, et al. v. Westminster School District of Orange County, et al. and the US Courthouse and Post Office

Before Brown, et al., v. Board of Education., et al., made racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, there was Mendez, et al. v. Westminster School District of Orange County, et al. This 1946 class-action lawsuit challenged the constitutionality of separate schools for Mexican American students in Southern California and eventually helped end public school segregation across the state. The trial took place at the US District Court of Southern California, on the second floor of the US Court House & Post Office building, a National Historic Landmark, in Los Angeles.

Photo of monument shaped like a giant book standing up with the pages splayed open. The inside of the book describes the story of the Mendez v. Westminster case.
Equality Book monument to the Mendez v. Westminster case.

Photo by BreiAunna, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

For over 50 years after the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” was constitutional in 1896, California school districts could legally decide to separate children of color from white children. The doctrine meant that the separation of racial groups was legal as long as the facilities for each group were equal.

Though Mexican Americans were “white” under the 1940 US census, more than 80% of Mexican American children in Orange County, California attended segregated non-white schools by World War II. Separating Mexican American children from “whiter” children was widespread in the southwestern United States at the time. Schools segregated children based on their surnames and the presumption they had little or no English language skills. As a result, other Latino students were also impacted and lumped together as "Mexican American" regardless of their heritage.

By the 1940s, virtually all agricultural workers in California were Mexicans or Mexican Americans, and they were the largest minority group in the state. School authorities presumed their children would only need skills for low-wage labor, so the schools only taught them vocational skills and did not offer higher-level classes. California’s Mexican American schools had inferior resources compared to white schools and only employed English-speaking teachers. In 1947, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Mendez et al. v. Westminster School District of Orange County, et al. brought an end to school segregation in California and supported later civil rights struggles to end all segregation nationally.

The Munemitsu and Mendez Families

Although Mendez, et al. v. Westminster, et al. relates to segregation of Mexican Americans, the story starts with the topic of Japanese American incarceration. During World War II, 125,000 Japanese Americans, including the Munemitsu family, were forcibly removed from their homes into incarceration camps. The Munemitsus owned and lived on a 40-acre farm, but leased it to the Mendez family while they were incarcerated. If it were not for the Munemitsu family leasing their home and farm to the Mendez family, the Mendez, et al. v. Westminster, et al. case would not have existed.

The Mendez family moved to the Munemitsu farm in 1944 and started a new life as farmers in Westminster. Having once dreamed of better education for himself, Gonzalo was eager to get his children enrolled in Westminster’s Seventeenth Street School. When the Mendez children tried to enroll, the school denied them entry because of their Mexican heritage, and told them they would have to attend the “Mexican” school which did not have an academic curriculum. The same day that school administrators rejected his children, they admitted Gonzalo’s nieces due to their last name, Vidaurri, and fair skin.

Administrators at the school district told the family that Mexican Americans needed their own schools because of cultural and language differences. However, the Mendez children spoke English and had previously studied at a school with academic subjects. Gonzalo knew that the school district was violating their rights as American citizens.

Color photo of 17-story Art Moderne-style building with pale walls. It is rectangular and steps back at the 4th & 6th stories with a slab-like tower rising above. The windows are organized in vertical strips and set back from the facade.
Exterior view of US Court House and Post Office, also known as the Spring Street Courthouse, at 312 N. Spring St. in Los Angeles.

Photo by Los Angeles, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Taking Legal Action

The Mendez family organized with four other Mexican families whose children faced similar discrimination. William Guzmán, Frank Palomino, Thomas Estrada, and Lorenzo Ramirez joined Gonzalo to launch a federal class-action court case that would challenge school segregation.

As the lead plaintiff, alongside attorney David Marcus, Gonzalo Mendez sued four school districts and superintendents on the grounds that his children and the children of other Mexican Americans were treated unfairly and sent to a school that was farther away with substandard conditions and lacked adequate instruction.

Marcus filed the lawsuit at the US Court for the Southern District of California, where they could argue that the State of California violated the children’s right to the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The US Constitution states that no State can “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The lawyer also used social science expert witnesses to explain that segregating children threatened their self-esteem and segregated school districts invented an inferior class of citizens where one did not exist. As a result, Mendez, et al. v. Westminster, et al. was the first federal lawsuit openly to challenge “separate but equal” segregation in K-12 schools. In Courtroom No. 8 of the historic US Court House and Post Office of Los Angeles, Judge Paul J. McCormick decided in favor of Mendez seven months later in February 1946.

In his decision, McCormick wrote:

“The equal protection of the laws’ pertaining to the public school system in California is not provided by furnishing in separate schools the same technical facilities, textbooks and courses of instruction to children of Mexican ancestry that are available to the other public school children regardless of their ancestry. A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality. It must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage.”

Color photo of courtroom viewed from benches for the public. A judge’s bench is against the back wall. Tables for the defendants and plaintiffs face a podium at the center. A row of seats flanks either side of the room.
Court Room  No. 8, where the Mendez case was heard in the US District Court in Los Angeles.

Photo by Susan Salvatore, courtesy of the National Historic Landmarks Program.

On Appeal

The Westminster school district agreed to desegregate, but the other three school districts appealed McCormick’s decision and the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco heard the appeal in late 1946. By this time, the case had attracted national attention. If an appeal went to the US Supreme Court, it had the potential to overturn public segregation throughout the nation.

At the appeals level, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Lawyers Guild, and the Japanese American Citizens League filed a joint brief in support of Mendez. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), American Jewish Congress, and the Attorney General of California also submitted briefs. Together, these briefs challenged the logic of all racial segregation in the United States, as well as the legality of segregating Mexican Americans in California.

The Ninth Circuit Court’s decision did not overturn racial segregation in its district, but it did uphold the core of McCormick’s decision and ruled that it is unconstitutional to segregate Americans because of their heritage. Two months after the Ninth Circuit Court upheld Judge McCormick’s decision in favor of the families, California Governor Earl Warren, who later presided over Brown v. Board as Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, signed a bill that made California the first State to outlaw all public school segregation.

The national significance of Mendez, et al. v. Westminster, et al. rests on its influence on the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and 60s, and its effect on the lives of Mexican Americans in the Ninth Circuit. The brief that the NAACP, authored by Robert Carter, Thurgood Marshall, and Loren Miller, filed for Mendez, et al. v. Westminster, et al. was the forerunner to the organization’s legal arguments in Brown v. Board of Education, when the US Supreme Court overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine in 1954.

After Mendez, et al. v. Westminster, et al. set the precedent, the landmark case helped strike down policies of segregating Mexican Americans in the Ninth Circuit. Mexican Americans in the Southwest took their school districts to court to challenge the legality of separate schools for their children and won. Using Mendez, et al. v. Westminster, et al., district courts in Texas and Arizona ruled to end segregation for Mexican Americans before the US Supreme Court decided that all state-sponsored segregation is unconstitutional in Brown.

Front of stone government building. A flight of low steps leads to 4 sets of gold double doors separated by Greek columns with decorative metalwork in between. “United States Courthouse” seals featuring eagles and large American flags flank the entrance.
US Court House and Post Office, 312 N. Spring St., Downtown Los Angeles, 2014.

Photo by MikeJiroch, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Building

The lawsuit that started the movement led to a six-day trial held at the US Court House and Post Office in Los Angeles. Built in 1940, this historic building was only five years old during Mendez, et al. v. Westminster, et al. The building is a 17-story, Depression-era Moderne style Federal courthouse and post office. It is a steel-frame building, reinforced with concrete, with recessed windows. The exterior has a light-pink, textured ceramic veneer, and gray Minnesota granite with pink veining adorns at its base. Wide concrete steps lead from the sidewalks to the court house entrances on Spring Street and Main Street. US District Courtroom No. 8, the site of the trial, is on the second floor where all District courtrooms were at the time.

The high, white-plaster ceiling rises through the third floor. The walls feature five-foot-high American walnut wainscoting, with black walnut detail, with white acoustic tiles above it. Walnut paneling surrounds the double-door entry and lines the recessed area behind the judge’s bench. The bench, gallery bench, jury seating, press seating, and lecterns also feature a walnut veneer. The US General Services Administration made few major alterations to the building after its construction and has made minimal changes to Courtroom No. 8 since 1945, apart from replacing ceiling lights, flooring, and minor aspects of the courtroom furniture.

In 1966, the US Court for the Southern District of California moved to San Diego and the Court for the Central District of California (western division) moved into the Los Angeles US Court House & Post Office Federal building.

Sylvia Mendez and relatives of plaintiffs gather around an enlarged poster of the stamp displayed on an easel. The stamp features two figures in profile reading a book against a night sky. The sun shines down from another corner.
Sylvia Mendez and other relatives of plaintiffs in the court case celebrate the release of the US Postal Service's Mendez, et al. v. Westminster, et al. commemorative stamp at Chapman University, 2007.

Courtesy of Chapman University, Frank Mt. Pleasant Library of Special Collections and Archives.


The legacy of Mendez, et al. v. Westminster, et al. includes the precedent it set for future cases, its impact on the lives of the people oppressed by segregation, and the inspiration it gave to later civil rights struggles. Overshadowed by Brown v. Board for decades, a resurgence of public recognition of the case in the early 21st century called attention to its significance. In 2003, PBS aired Sandra Robbie’s documentary, Mendez v. Westminster: For All the Children/Para Todos los Niños. In 2007, the US Postal Service released a stamp to commemorate the landmark case.

In 2011, President Obama awarded Sylvia Mendez the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her role in the ongoing struggle for freedom and justice in the United States. In 2021, Janice Munemitsu, Tad Munemitsu’s daughter, wrote the book The Kindness of Color about the intertwined experiences of the Munemitsu and Mendez family that led to Mendez, et al. v. Westminster, et al. Janice, Sylvia, and the Orange County Department of Education together supported the creation of the Mendez Tribute Park in Westminster. This outdoor museum-like park highlights the Mendez, et al. v. Westminster, et al. story. It was dedicated December 1, 2022.

This article was adapted from a Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary about American Latino Heritage. It was edited by Melissa Hurtado, Heritage Education Fellow, and Marjorie Justine Antonio, NCPE Intern and ACE CRDIP Intern, with the Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education.

Last updated: September 13, 2023