Nick Ramirez, 32, of Murrieta enjoys all the freedom due a United States citizen. As a third generation Mexican-American, Ramirez is welcomed into any club, school or eatery he wants to enter. It came as a surprise to him when he learned early in 2003 that his grandfather and four other Hispanic men championed the case for integration of schools in Orange County, California.
Our nation is well familiar with the African-American fight for civil rights, but has never heard how the first such battle was won by Ramirez’ grandfather and the others men in the 1940s. In this early case, an African-American lawyer named Thurgood Marshall filed a brief on behalf of the NAACP. He later successfully argued the landmark case of Brown vs. the Board of Education before the Supreme Court in 1954 using the Orange County case as a model. It is also significant that Earl Warren was the governor of California at that time of the first case, and was the chief justice of the high court when the Brown case was heard.
Margie Aguirre of Yorba Linda, chairperson for the Heritage Committee of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC,) started researching Hispanic civil rights cases in 1996. When she read about the class action lawsuit of Mendez et al vs. Westminster School District of Orange County et al, she discovered a dramatic story history books fail to mention.
Aguirre read case documents, transcripts and original school board minutes of Westminster and Santa Ana. The more Aguirre read, the stronger her resolve grew to honor the plaintiffs she dubs “the patriots of civil rights in education.” As she attempted to contact the plaintiffs, she found that only one was living, and the families knew little about the impact the case made on future desegregation cases. Aguirre insists it is the “et al” that makes the difference, that each of the plaintiffs standing on their own convictions with multiple cases of discrimination gave victory to the case.
Aguirre says, “In 1945 Mexican-American children in Orange County were not allowed to attend school with Anglo children, but were bused to schools for Mexican children. Several fathers protested, because their children spoke English well and did not benefit from what they considered inferior schooling given in the Spanish language. When the fathers asked school officials to transfer their children to mainstream schools, they were told there were too many Mexicans in the Anglo schools. After some persistence the fathers were told their children could be considered for transfer if the children were presentable in appearance and dress, if they were light-skinned and could speak English well.”
In 1945 attorney David Marcus filed Mendez et al vs. Westminster School District of Orange County et al in the U.S. District Federal District Court in Los Angeles on behalf of five thousand Orange County students in forced segregation. The American National Lawyers Guild, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU,) the Japanese Citizens League and the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) joined Mendez et al in support of their cause.
Marcus represented five fathers whose families resided within school boundaries of the four representative school districts of Orange County in this landmark desegregation case. The suit was filed by the fathers who believed the civil rights of their minor children were violated by school district officials. Gonzalo Mendez and Thomas Estrada alleged violations against the Westminster School District, William Guzman against schools in the City of Santa Ana, Frank Palomino against the Garden Grove School District and Lorenzo Ramirez against the El Modena School District.
In 1946 Judge McCormick decided in the plaintiffs’ favor, then nine days later the school districts appealed, stating the federal court had no jurisdiction in the matter, that no law was violated and that segregating the children was in the best interest of each party. Finally in 1947, after an appeal by attorney David Marcus, the judges of the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco unanimously upheld Judge McCormick’s decision that the school districts were in contempt of the Fourteen Amendment of United States Constitution. The judges further decided school officials were eligible for criminal prosecution of for violation of civil rights of the American children of Mexican or Latin extraction.
The victory won by Mendez et al played out quietly in the lives of the plaintiffs. Their wives and families were unaware of the impact their civil rights case had in the nation, let alone their own lives. Ignacio Ramirez, son of plaintiff Lorenzo Ramirez, says “My father was very private about the suit. That was his way. We didn’t know anything about what was going on.” Ignacio was ten to twelve years old at the time of the lawsuit.
His brothers Silverio and Jose state they didn’t know about the case filed for their benefit. Grandson Jesse Ramirez says he is astonished that neither his family, nor his university level history studies mentioned the significant contribution his grandfather and the others made to civil rights in Orange County and the nation.
Aguirre’s recognition of the “Unsung Patriots of Civil Rights” took place in a Garden Grove community youth center on the very rainy afternoon of Saturday, March 15, 2003, fifty-eight years and thirteen days after Mendez et al, vs. Westminster School District of Orange County et al was filed. In the event sponsored by LULAC and the Hispanic Bar Association of Orange County, honorable recognition was given to the families of the plaintiffs and to families of supporters of the case.
Judge Frances Munoz lauded the plaintiffs and their supporters, who as “humble, salt-of-the-earth people” possessed vision and rose to the occasion to make a difference.
Ninety-four-year old Thomas Estrada, the only original plaintiff still alive, stood tall as he received a bouquet of roses, and Lorenzo Ramirez’ widow Josefina smiled from her front row seat.
Aguirre uncovered an important layer in the history of obtaining equal education rights for all Americans. Martin Luther King had a dream and so does Aguirre. She dreams that future history books will give the Mexican-American Unsung Patriots of Civil Rights in Education the credit they deserve.