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Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism University of Southern California

The Landmark Civil Rights Case You've Never Heard Of

One Orange County resident gives the first case to challenge school segregation new life.

Sandra Robbie has spent most of her life in Orange County and now lives in Tustin with her family. Regardless of all the time she has spent in this suburban community, she had never heard of Mendez vs. Westminster, the first court case to challenge segregation in schools.  It originated with a Mexican American family living in Westminster.

"I don't know if you've had that experience where you've had that experience where you heard something about somebody or some place that you felt you knew intimately and this something was so opposite of everything you ever believed that it just blew your mind," Robbie said. "That moment changed my life."

Robbie's Orange County is very different from the one the Mendez family lived in.  In the 1940s, Mexican Americans were targeted by widespread segregation practices.  They were forced to sit in a separate balcony in movie theatres, could only use public pools on specified days and had to attend segregated schools.  These practices were not part of California law, but were common in Orange County neighborhoods.

Gonzalo Mendez Junior, who was 6 or 7 at the time of the case, recalls growing up with segregation and not really noticing its negative ramifications.  

"I didn't see anything bad about segregation," Mendez said.  "I didn't really grasp what was going on."

Mendez recalls the day he and his two sibilings were turned away from the white school near his family's ranch.  His family had just moved to Westminster after his family, Gonzalo Mendez Sr., leased the ranch from a Japanese family who was being interned during World War II.  His aunt took the Mendez children and their three part-French cousins down to the school to enroll.  Mendez's blonde, fair-skinned cousins were accepted by the school, officials told Mendez's aunt that Gonzalo and his cousins would have to attend the Mexican school.

This was a call to action for Mendez's father, who rallied four other Mexican American fathers to fight the case in court.  In 1947, the L.A. Superior Court ruled that Mexican students should be allowed to attend any school in the Westminster, Garden Grove, El Modena and Santa Ana school districts.

This decision later set the foundation for the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954, which ruled that state laws authorizing school segregation of blacks and whites were unconstitutional.  However, while the Mendez case sparked major changes throughout America, it is given little attention in American civil rights history.

"The case, though it was important, it was during the second world war and there were so many things going on that it just kind of got pushed aside and sat there for 20 or 30 years," Mendez said.

A self-professed "Mendez maniac", Robbie has dedicated 12 years of her life to picking the case back up and bringing it into the public eye.  In 2002, she produced anEmmy-winning documentary called "Mendez vs. Westminster: For All The Children" which highlights the history of segregation in Orange County as well as the events leading up to the case.

In 2007, Robbie launched a cross-country tour to spread the word about Mendez in a 1967 Volkwagon bus.  She traveled up and down the California coast, visited the White House and appeared in the Puerto Rican Day parade in New York City in the eye-catching orange vehicle.

"I knew we had to have a bus because nothing says peace and love like a Volkswagon bus," Robbie said. "You can't help but smile when you see it."

Robbie has several new projects in the works to raise awareness about the Mendez case.  She plans to launch a walking tour of notable civil rights landmarks and segregation sites in Orange known as "The Peace Walk".

"Students in the 4th or 11th grade or of any year can come out and see some of the history of a formerly segregated movie theatre or a formerly segregated swimming pool or the last standing Mexican school in Orange County," Robbie said. "And all of this is just 5 exits south of Disneyland!  I think we can really rock this in American civil rights tourism."

Robbie has also worked to get the Mendez case incorporated into school curriculums nationwide.  While the California Department of Education adopted the Mendez case into 4th and 11th grade curriculums in 2009, she still thinks more can be done.

"In order for the story to be celebrated, we really need to anchor it in our institutions and in our state awareness and in our national awareness," Robbie said.

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