School integration: A critical analysis of Mendez v. Westminster (by Roxana Garcia)


To broaden 11-12th grade students’ understanding of history and school desegregation, and encourage students to go beyond the history presented in school textbooks by introducing the little-known yet important Mendez v. Westminster case. To help students sharpen analytical skills by understanding, discussing and questioning the rationale behind the Mendez verdict.


Students will engage with primary and second sources to learn about the Mendez v. Westminster case and its connection to the school integration movement. An interview of Sylvia Mendez, whose father Gonzalo Mendez was the primary plaintiff in Mendez, and select media clips will provide students with a general view of Mendez. Students will engage in activities to identify the political and social climate at the time of the ruling, identifying concrete perpetuations of bias and prejudice in the time of Mendez.

Students will be asked to read at least two other articles to build a framework for critically analyzing a primary source and legal document: the Mendez decision from 1946. Students will begin by discussing and analyzing the rationale used to justify school segregation 1940s. Students will then evaluate and discuss Judge McCormick’s decision and reasoning to end the segregation of Mexican and Mexican-American school children. Overall, students will evaluate differing points of views on school segregation. Students will critically analyze the verdict and discuss its possible merits and shortcomings, in addition to connecting the ruling to the larger movement for civil rights and to the larger struggle to end school desegregation. Students will explore how Mendez is part of a continuous movement – a movement which did not begin nor end with Brown v. Board of Education. In short, students will integrate the knowledge and ideas into a coherent understanding of (1) the 1920s-1940s social atmosphere (2) the rationale justifying de jure segregation in education (3) the Mendez ruling and (4) Mendez’s connection to the wider school desegregation struggle in the U.S.

Essential Understanding: The Mendez case is one case in a continuous movement to end school desegregation.

Essential Questions:

  • What was the Mendez v. Westminster case?
  • What was the political and social climate at the time of the case, and what was the rationale behind legalizing school desegregation?
  • What are the merits and the shortcomings of the Mendez verdict?
  • How does Mendez v. Westminster fit into the timeline of the battle to end school desegregation?
  • How is Mendez part of a continuous movement for school integration?


De jure: legally. For example, Mendez v. Westminster ended the de jure segregation of students from Mexican descent in California schools – it ended the legal segregation of those students.

De facto: in reality, actually. For example, de facto segregation is segregation not lawfully determined. A public school today could be de facto segregated if it has a homogenous student body – for example, most if not all students identify as Latina/os.


Before there was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education, there was the 1945-1947 Mendez v. Westminster. In the former, the U.S. Supreme Court ended de jure racial segregation in schools in the United States. The latter ended de jure segregation of Mexican and Mexican-American students enrolled in California schools. Mendez influenced Brown in a variety of ways, and was a historic case in the legal battle to desegregate schools. Yet the majority of textbooks fail to mention Mendez and the close to one hundred people involved in it – among them, Gonzalo Mendez, a Mexican immigrant who was the first of five Mexican parents to legally challenge the Westminster school board. The legal challenges to school segregation in the United States is typically confined to a discussion of Brown, failing to recognize (1) Brown was not the end nor beginning of school desegregation and (2) the communities of color actively advocating for school desegregation.

Before discussing Mendez and its impact on the present, it is necessary to discuss its context in the past. Segregation of people of Mexican descent manifested itself in a number of ways: jobs tended to be limited to agricultural work in fields or other physically strenuous employments. Mexicans, in addition to other racial minorities, were often subjected to de facto segregation and barred from public establishments, such as swimming pools, restaurants, and schools[1]. In California counties able to afford separate schools, Mexican and Mexican American children were segregated by race. It is important to note the segregation of other minority ethnic groups, such as Chinese and Indian, was written into law[2]. However, the segregation of students of Mexican descent was not formally written into law, yet it was rampant. By the 1930s, it is estimated 80% of California school districts segregated Mexican students into separate “Mexican” schools, typically run-down and sometimes located in unsafe areas (one school’s playground was situated beside an electrical fence)[3].

Segregation of children of Mexican descent was rationalized for a number of reasons, a few blatantly discriminatory (“the Mexican is a menace to the health and morals of the rest of the community”[4], stated one educator) and others discriminatory but justified for “educational reasons”. The majority of professional educators in the 1920s believed Mexicans were intrinsically different from white students – Mexican students were believed to be unsuited for academic work and had low intellectual ability, the latter a claim obstensibly supported by low IQ scores. Opinion began to shift for a number of reasons, such as the U.S. involvement in World War I – Americans began to grow uncomfortable of the disconnect between their fight against the Nazis’ racist ideology abroad and the reality of segregation in the U.S. In addition, Mexican and Mexican Americans fought in the war and began a stronger lobbying for civil rights. By the 1940s, segregation was mainly justified by a supposed need to have Mexicans “assimilate” and learn American culture, in order to perpetuate American ideals and values[5].

The Mendez case was won for a few main reasons. First, de jure segregation of students of Mexican descent was not mandated and schools were out of line to segregate that specific ethnic group. Second, Judge McCormick took a progressive stance at the time and ruled the Mexican racial group was not inferior and school desegregation was inherently unjust. Third, since education’s main was assimilation and perpetuation of American ideals, students could better assimilate when surrounded by white students. While the Mendez case was a gain for civil rights, it pushed an assimilationist agenda – an agenda popular then and now and which sometimes manifested itself in harmful ways. In addition, the verdict did not end de facto segregation. It is understood de facto segregation of schools continues to exist: for example, a recent study suggests schools were probably more segregated in the 1973 than in 1947[6]De facto segregation manifests itself in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons, the main one being neighborhoods themselves are segregated yet the government has not focused on, say, busing programs to bus students to schools outside their neighborhoods.

History textbooks tend to avoid critically analyzing history and instead tend to provide a neat and simplistic ending to a struggle. The Mendez case is heralded as a victory for school desegregation, and it is. Yet it should be understood the Mendez case is part of a continuous struggle, alive today, for school integration in the United States.


1. Posters and marker

2. Transcript of Sylvia Mendez interview by Richard Heinemeyer for the Center for Oral and Public History, PDF available through City of Santa Ana Library and California State University, Fullerton:

3. C-SPAN clip of Phillipa Strum, writer of a book on Mendez, introducing the case:

4. Excerpt from Charles Wollenberg’s “Mendez v. Westminster: Race, Nationality and Segregation in California Schools.” California Historical Quarterly 53 (1974): 317-332.

5. Excerpts from the Mendez. v. Westminster, 64 F. Supp. 544 (1946) Decision

Click to access RG2.pdf

6. Excerpts from Frederick P. Aguirre, “Mendez v. Westminster School District: How it affected Brown v. Board of Education,” Journal of Hispanic Higher Education 4 (2005): 321-332.

Click to access RG1.pdf

7. Excerpt from an NPR talk on de facto segregation:

8. Sylvia Mendez speaks at the Centro for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunger College on the case; clip begins at 28:51

9. Timeline of School Integration


Day 1

Inform students the next class’s activities will focus on introducing school integration in preparation for tonight’s reading/homework. The next class will be devoted to the Mendez v. Westminster case, a landmark case in the fight for school integration.

Pass out copies of the Material 9: Timeline of School Integration. Ask the class if anyone knows about (1) Mendez and (2) school integration. If a student is familiar with either, ask said student to elaborate on the topic with a few sentences.

Ask students to find the following cases in the timeline, and call on students to read the description below each of the following dates on the timeline: the Civil Rights Act of 1875, 1883, 1896, 1927, 1947 (Mendez), and 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education), and 2003. Explain that although a few events were highlighted, the fight for school integration is far from over, as the 2003 Harvard event explains.

Ask students how many of the events we read over they were familiar with before class.

Assign reading for Material 2 (have students read from “When the time came for us to go to school…” on pages 3-7 “I was in all the clubs and was part of the drill team”, the beginning and end is indicated on the file).   

Day 2

Inform students today’s class will be a discussion and critical analysis of Mendez. Before a discussion, however, students need additional background information on Mendez, such as where it was fought and the people involved. The following clip will help establish a framework: show Material 3 (clip of Phillipa Strum introducing Mendez v. Westminster; clip begins at 4:33

Before the transition into the next activity, call on one or two students to summarize Mendez in two sentences. Sample answers include: it struck down segregration of Mexican American students in schools in California; there were 5 plaintiffs who wanted their Mexican American children to be able to attend all California schools. Call on one or two students and ask their thoughts on Mendez and if they were familiar with the case beforehand. Explain the next activity will delve into the reasoning behind school segregation.

Divide students into groups of five. Distribute Material 4 and have students read aloud or silently from Page 5 “The increasing segregation… to Page 9 “…but it will be slower if hindrances such as segregation for educational purposes persist”. After students are done with the reading, hand out poster paper and markers and ask students to list the rationale behind school segregation throughout the years. Afterward, ask one group to present the list to the class. Ask students if they have any questions before continuing to the next activity. Allow students in the class to answer the question before providing the answer. Assign Material 5, introducing it as excerpts from the Mendez ruling, as homework, and encourage students to write down questions if they have any as they are reading. Explain the assignment will be not only reading the document, but summarizing each section with one or two bullet points in the margins as students are reading. For example, a student will read the first two paragraphs and possibly write in the margin: – five people file against the school board – their claim was based on the 14th amendment. Grade the assignment based on effort. Explain the next class’s activity will focus on analyzing the document paragraph by paragraph.

Day 3

Begin the discussion by asking students their reactions to the reading. Was it difficult to read? Was it understandable? What questions did students have? Take note of the questions to incorporate them into the discussion.

Bring the class into a circle, and begin to go through each part of the document one by one. Questions to be asked for each section are on the margins of the Teacher’s Version of the document. Students will discuss the material, suggested questions are listed on the excerpts. The aim is to help students integrate knowledge and critically analyze the ruling.

Break students into four groups. Ask two groups of the students to summarize the excerpt from Material 6 on a poster paper, and the other two groups to summarize Material 7, from NPR. In addition, ask each group to include one or two points on their overall reactions to the reading they were assigned. Ask each group to present poster in less than five minutes.

Show Material 8 from 28:51 – 31:14 to end the discussion. Ask students for a few reactions to the Mendez case as a way to wrap up the Mendez study.

Additional Sources:

Frederick P. Aguirre, “Mendez v. Westminster School District: How it affected Brown v. Board of Education,” Journal of Hispanic Higher Education 4 (2005): 321-332. Can be found at:

Philippa Strum, Mendez v. Westminster: School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights (Topeka: University Press of Kansas, 2010)


Chronological and Spatial Thinking
1. Students compare the present with the past, evaluating the consequences of past events and decisions and determining the lessons that were learned.
Historical Research, Evidence, and Point of View
2. Students identify bias and prejudice in historical interpretations.
Historical Interpretation
2. Students recognize the complexity of historical causes and effects, including the limitations on determining cause and effect.
3. Students interpret past events and issues within the context in which an event unfolded rather than solely in terms of present-day norms and values.
11.10 Students analyze the development of federal civil rights and voting rights.
2. Examine and analyze the key events, policies, and court cases in the evolution of civil rights, including Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, and California Proposition 209.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
7. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and
media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or
solve a problem.


[1] Sylvia Mendez, interviewed by Richard Heinemeyer, Center for Oral and Public History, City of Santa Ana Library, California State University, Fullerton, April 2011, 7

[2] Learn California Organization. “United States District Court Summary: Mendez v. Westminster, 64 F. Supp. 544 (1946) Decision”. Accessed 28 March 2012.

[3] Blanco, Maria, “Before Brown, There was Mendez”: the lasting impact of Mendez v. Westminster in the struggle for desegration,” Immigration Policy Center Perspectives, March 2010.

[4] Grace Stanley, “Special School for Mexicans,” The Survey, September 15, 1920, p. 714.

[5] Wollenberg, Charles, “Mendez v. Westminster: Race, Nationality and Segregation in California Schools.” California Historical Quarterly 53 (1974): 317-332.

[6] “De Facto Segregation Growing, Study Says,”National Public Radio, accessed Apri 27,2012,

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