When studying the Civil Rights struggle of the United States over the decades, even the most cursory study of an American history and/or legal text will quickly reveal the details of Brown v. Board of Education, which is universally acknowledged as the pivotal court case in the desegregation of the American public school system. However, a closer examination of source material will show that an earlier case, Mendez v. Westminster, addressed many of the same legal and civil rights issues, yet never received the attention that the Brown case received, neither immediately after both cases unfolded nor in the retrospect of history. Determining exactly how and why this has occurred makes for fascinating legal and historic research and discussion.
In this paper, the Mendez and Brown cases will be compared, analyzed and discussed to provide a better understanding of the how and why two similar cases were handled and are commemorated in vastly different ways.
Circumstantial and Legal Comparison of Brown and Mendez Cases
A fuller understanding of the Brown and Mendez cases is obtained when both cases are described and compared not only by the actual details of these cases, but also by a legal examination of both.
Mendez v. Westminster, the 1947 school segregation case that set precedent in the California state court system, was revolutionary not only for the issues that it addressed, but also for the legal reaction to the ruling, which sent a loud and clear message regarding the question of minority integration into the California school system immediately following World War II, which obstensibly was a time when all Americans were supposed to unite and promote freedom for all peoples. Mendez v. Westminster, simply stated challenged the exclusion of Mexican-Americans from the public school system in several communities of California. Ultimately, a California superior court ruled that the segregation of the schools was unlawful and ordered that the schools be segregated forthwith. The sad truth, however, is that this court ordered mandate was all but ignored by the California public school system, keeping Mexican Americans on the fringe of mainstream America and deprived of the quality education that others from selected ethnic/racial groups enjoyed (Menchaca, 1985).
In stark contrast to the Mendez case, Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 United States Supreme Court ruling to allow African-Americans the right to attend public schools without discrimination, had a very different impact than did Mendez. The Brown case, actually a combination of a variety of civil rights litigation over the years leading up to 1954 declared that “separate but equal” schools for African Americans was illegal and deprived those individuals of fundamental Constitutional rights (Klarman, 2004).
On the surface, the Mendez and Brown cases appear to be almost identical, but a closer look reveals the opposite. Where Brown was enforced, obeyed, and maintained as an important legal landmark in the American civil rights movement, Mendez was ignored from the beginning, given little public exposure beyond the borders of California, and proved not only impossible to implement from the start, but also impossible to enforce over the long term. Net effect of the Mendez ruling was much ado about nothing. This contrast begs the answering of an essential legal question.
Essential Legal Question at Hand
Having presented the argument that Mendez and Brown are basically identical in argument, essence and ultimate court verdicts, the essential legal question remains as to why one was brought into the spotlight, strictly enforced and maintained (Brown) while the other was basically relegated to the legal scrapheap (Mendez). The answer lies in the complexity of the American civil rights movement of the 1940s and 1950s.
During the 1940s and 1950s in the United States, it should not be mistaken that the issue of segregation was only being addressed in the Western and Southern United States. In truth, the situation was quite different than that. For example, in the late 1940s and 1950s, several Western and Midwestern United States in relative proximity to California, such as Colorado, Utah and Nevada passed legislation that outright made segregation illegal for any group (Wasby, et al, 1977), which in retrospect may have lessened the importance of the Mendez case in the eyes of the public, whose support would have surely made a huge difference in the embracing of the verdict by California schools. Therefore, whether a valid point or weak excuse, it is feasible to consider the possibility that the Mendez verdict was ignored because of the presence of similar laws in neighboring states, many of which may have had limited impact. In fairness, however, it is likewise very possible that far more sinister forces were at work to kill the ability of Mendez to achieve any level of freedom for the Mexican Americans of 1940’s California. During that time period, huge numbers of people were needed of course to populate the armed forces for the fighting of World War II, and large numbers of Californians lost their lives in that conflict, leading to a reduction in those available to contribute to the state’s economy through labor and the resulting payment of taxes on wages. Due to the fact that many of the jobs to be done involved manual, unskilled labor, it made economic sense for business owners to recruit workers at the lowest possible wages. Consequently, one of the best ways for this to be possible was to keep the large population of Mexican Americans undereducated, barring their advancement in the job market (Menchaca, 1995). Keeping the Mexicans out of the mainstream educational system virtually guaranteed that they would be unable to assimilate to higher socioeconomic status.
Brown v Board of Education, as part of the African-American civil rights movement, took a different path than did the Mendez case. While Mexican-Americans were sought as a source of inexpensive labor in the post World War II boom of California, African-Americans continued to suffer discrimination in all areas of American life-political, economic, educational, and beyond. Because of this widespread exclusion from mainstream America, there needed to be a dramatic point of entry for African-Americans to gain status in the many facets of American society that they only viewed from the outside since the days of the Civil War. This entry in mind, organized groups in support of the interests of African-Americans, such as the NAACP, identified the school system as the strategic spot where a victory would open the floodgates of recognition and equality for African-Americans and balance the scales in terms of racial equality and in effect, open admission to the American Dream (Bowman, 2001). Such a drastic move would also draw attention from the media and government officials because of the political clout of the NAACP and their high level of public visibility. Logistically, the ability of the American South to mobilize and literally bring the plight of African-Americans to the steps of the White House made a massive difference in the effectiveness of not only the Brown verdict, but also the subsequent enforcement of it.
Why Brown Overshadows Mendez in the Annals of History
Taking a close look beneath the surface of the socioeconomic factors and backroom agendas that gave Brown a huge advantage over Mendez, there are other elements which have caused Brown to be given all of the attention in the pages of history, while Mendez, for all intents and purposes, is basically a footnote. In a term, this can be summed up as majority rules. Just as the privileged majority in California was successful in prevented the court mandated Mendez ruling to be violated, ignored and tossed away, the African-American majority in the American South of the time advanced the civil rights cause for their individual racial group. Simply put, the number of African-Americans surpassed that of Mexican-Americans many times over, truly giving the upper hand of strength in numbers. Even though the American mainstream tried to ignore the collective voice of African-Americans, the voice became too loud to ignore and too powerful to overcome.
An interesting facet of the issue of the popularity of Brown v Board of Education lies in the effort that it took to get this case to be decided in a way that was favorable to the cause of racial equality for African-Americans. The NAACP, a sparkplug that made all the difference in the eventual verdict in the Brown case, had at its disposal some of the most brilliant legal minds of the day. Among these skilled legal experts was a young African-American lawyer named Thurgood Marshall. It was his knowledge, skill and determination that saved the day for the Brown case (Wasby, et al, 1977). Marshall’s connection to the case, and the cause of racial equality came in handy several years later when Marshall became the first African-American United States Supreme Court Justice, a position he used to the benefit of the battle for equality. The position of Justice Marshall was noticed by other branches of the federal government too.
It was mentioned earlier that groups like the NAACP used their clout to bring their message right to the White House itself; this delivery certainly was heard by the president and his subordinates; aiding the African-American cause during that time was a great deal of political support, evidenced by the mobilization of National Guard troops by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to enforce the permitted attendance of African-Americans to the public schools of their choosing, showing that armed enforcement defeats prejudice rhetoric. The seeds of this conciliatory action by Eisenhower were planted nearly a century before by his very own political party, ironically enough.
Segregation and the Conservative Political Agenda
Segregation in the United States, especially for African-Americans, reached a high point in the years after the Civil War, driven in large part by the conservative agenda of what were then known as Radical Republicans. Abraham Lincoln, himself a Republican, supported reconciliation with the rebellious Southern states after their surrender to the Union in 1865; however, Lincoln’s assassination shortly after the war’s end also killed his sympathetic views and wish to promote racial equality. Recently freed slaves found the doors of opportunity locked tightly against them despite legal decisions to the contrary, in an environment similar to that of the years following the Mendez verdict. It would be nearly a century before the Brown verdict broke down more barriers of racial segregation and advanced the cause of equality for all races in America.
Aftermath-Racial Debate in the 21st Century
Despite the discussion of the quest of Mexican and African-American equality in the past tense, this is not to say that these battles are over; in the modern day, the battles are still very much alive for a variety of reasons. Disputes and divisions between the major American political parties often results in the claim by one party or the other that they are the champions of the minority cause, and of course, their opposition is the arch enemy of the same group. Political candidates for office invariably seek to align themselves with racial minorities in the hopes of garnering the votes from that group, and organizations like the NAACP are regularly courted by those with questionable motives. These assertions are reinforced by two major political issues that have divided the country at the present time.
When Hurricane Katrina decimated large portions of the Southern United States, and millions of African-Americans found themselves homeless, jobless and faced with the very real possibility of extinction, the political lines began to appear almost instantaneously. Political parties made the claims that African-Americans were not receiving the kind of government assistance that perhaps other groups would receive in the same circumstances, and for what it is worth, that the disasters were man-made to deliberately exterminate minorities. Although cooler heads eventually prevailed somewhat, this debate continues up to the time of this research.
Mexican-Americans have not fared any better in recent times; the sensitive issue for these individuals is that of immigration. Many Mexicans are denied the ability to come to America to improve their opportunities for a fruitful life through hard work and opportunity, and there are those in the political arena who have tried to help Mexicans to receive an equal chance in America. Conversely, there are those who wish to penalize Mexicans who seek asylum and opportunity in America, saying that they are no better than trespassers who have no right to lay claim to their piece of the American dream, whatever the motivation.
Speaking strictly in terms of the bottom line of both the African and Mexican quests for racial equality, it is fair and accurate to say that both groups, regardless of the progress of the past, have a long road ahead to get to where they truly want to be, and there will always be those who will try to oppose them for a variety of reasons.
In this paper, two essential legal cases, Mendez v Westminster and Brown v Board of Education were described, analyzed and explored in an effort to not only understand the Mexican and African struggles for racial equality in America, but also the relative disregard of Mexican efforts to gain recognition in comparison to the advancements of the African cause. The argument of which group is worse off aside, there are common denominators that need to be noted in conclusion.
First, all minorities can universally agree that they are unfairly treated, even in a free society like that of the United States of America. Second, few would argue that there is a long way to go to promote overall racial harmony worldwide. Third, these problems will not be addressed overnight, as history has proven.
In closing, let it be understood that legal mandates aside, understanding, respect and dialogue need to improve before any groups achieve what they truly deserve.