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You Be the Judge: Latinos' Contributions to the American Civil Rights Movement

Created by:
Jocelyn Murphy-Stout
Egg Harbor City

Latinos in America

Grade Level:
6 to 8


In the early- to mid-1900s, California public schools were as segregated as schools in the South. Like southern African American students, children of Japanese, Chinese, Mongolian, and Mexican heritage, most living in California's citrus region, experienced discrimination, attending schools with substandard facilities and curricula.

This lesson introduces the Latino contribution to the American Civil Rights Movement. The U.S. Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson ruled that it was legal to separate people of different races as long as facilities provided were of similar quality. Many individuals, however, supported by such organizations as the NAACP and LULAC (League of Latin American Citizens), challenged the "separate but equal" policy in public schools at the state level.

California was home to many Latino Americans, one of the largest groups facing education discrimination. The focus of this lesson is Mendez v. Westminster, a state case which pre-dated the better known Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education case in Topeka, Kansas by almost a decade. In 1945, five Latino-American parents successfully challenged the Plessy v. Ferguson decision regarding legal segregation in Orange County, California. Their actions, which culminated in Mendez v. Westminster, paved the way for public school integration on a national level.

In this lesson, students read and utilize the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, become familiar with the Plessy v. Ferguson case, and analyze a political cartoon. More importantly, they will learn about Latino-Americans' contributions in overturning racial segregation in public schools. They will be the judge, hearing the Mendez v. Westminster case and rendering an opinion based upon the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause and the facts of the Mendez v. Westminster case.

Historical Context

Racial segregation in America's public schools was solidified by the Plessy v. Ferguson U.S. Supreme Court decision. The case centered around Homer Plessy, a Louisiana man whose parentage was 1/8 black and 7/8 white. In a 1892 planned confrontation, Mr. Plessy boarded a railroad car designated for white travelers, refused to move to the car designated for black travelers (mandated by the Louisiana Separate Car Act of 1890), and was arrested. Despite Mr. Plessy's arguments that he was denied his equal rights under the 14th Amendment by the Louisiana Railroad Company, Judge John Ferguson found in favor of the railroad. The judge ruled that the railroad could regulate travel inside the Louisiana borders, and that the Louisiana Separate Car Act was constitutional. The U. S. Supreme Court heard the case in 1896 and also rejected Mr. Plessy's arguments regarding the equal rights clause of the 14th Amendment. In June, 1897, Mr. Plessy pled guilty and paid the fine, and the case set a precedent for legal justification of segregation for the next fifty years.

The 1946 California case of Mendez v. Westminster was one of the first efforts to challenge Plessy v. Ferguson, and paved the way for public school integration and the American Civil Rights Movement. Sylvia Mendez, an eight-year-old girl of Mexican-Puerto Rican heritage, moved with her family to a farm they rented from a Japanese-American family interned during World War II. Mexican-American students were forced to attend Hoover School, a separate, shabby two-room facility in Westminster, California, while white children attended the closer, better equipped 17th Street School. In March 1945, Mr. Gonzalo Mendez and four other parents of Mexican-American students filed a class action suit alleging that their children, along with 5,000 other Mexican-American students, were the victims of unconstitutional discrimination by being forced to endure separate, sub-standard schools in Westminster, Garden Grove, Santa Ana and El Modena school districts in Orange County, California.

Senior District Judge Paul McCormick of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of Mr. Mendez in February 1946. Judge McCormick held that segregated schools denied equal protection under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution on the grounds that current California law did not discriminate against people of Mexican heritage (though it did, at the time of McCormick's ruling, allow discrimination against Japanese, Chinese and Mongolian peoples).

California Governor Earl Warren, however, influenced by the Mendez v. Westminster case, helped pass legislation making it illegal to discriminate against Japanese, Chinese and Mongolian people.

Mendez v. Westminster was a ground-breaking case, and its impact spread far beyond the Latino community and California. It established at the state level a precedent for ending school segregation at the national level, a model which culminated in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka U.S. Supreme Court case that declared state laws establishing separate public schools for white and black students unconstitutional. Indeed, Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP lawyer who later became better known for his role in Brown v. The Board of Education, wrote the Amicus brief on behalf of Mr. Mendez.


discrimination, segregation, desegregation, integration, equality, "separate but equal"

Goals and Objectives:

After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

1. Understand the legal basis for racial discrimination in the United States.

2. Understand that the policy of separate but equal resulted in substandard facilities and services.

3. Understand the contribution of the Latino community to Civil Rights activism via the Mendez v. Westminster court ruling.


STANDARD 6.1 (U.S. History: America in the World): All students will acquire the knowledge and skills to think analytically about how past and present interactions of people, cultures, and the environment shape the American heritage. Such knowledge and skills enable students to make informed decisions that reflect fundamental rights and core democratic values as productive citizens in local, national, and global communities.

STANDARD 6.3 (Active Citizenship in the 21st Century): All students will acquire the skills needed to be active, informed citizens who value diversity and promote cultural understanding by working collaboratively to address the challenges that are inherent in living in an interconnected world.

Equipment, materials and other technology needed:

Mendez v. Westminster: Desegregating California's Schools (KOCE-TV Foundation; 8-minute video available free online at http://www.teachersdomain.org/resource/osi04.soc.ush.civil.mendez/). It also appears at the end of this lesson as web resource 4.

Appendix A: Fourteenth Amendment, U.S. Constitution

Appendix B1: Plessy v. Ferguson Cartoon

Appendix B2: Worksheet for Cartoon

Appendix C1: Portrait of Sylvia Mendez

Appendix C2: Picture of The Hoover School

Appendix C3: Picture of Mexican-American Child

Appendix C4: Worksheet for "You Be the Judge" Activity

Details of Activity

DAY 1: PART 1 (5-10 minutes)

Direct students to look around the classroom. Look at all the different types of students who are in attendance. Tell them this was not always the case. In the 1880s and 1890s, many states established laws to separate people based upon race. The laws applied to railroad cars, restaurants, hospitals, public schools, and many other public facilities. This activity will help students understand the legal issues that existed and were overcome through the efforts and sacrifices of many people.

DAY 1: PART 2 (20-30 minutes)

Provide students with a copy of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (See Appendix A attached). Ask them to read to find any words, concepts, or phrases that might protect citizens' rights. Write student suggestions on a white board, or a Smartboard if available. Students could offer reasons for their selections, and the Smartboard could be utilized to prioritize/organize the suggestions.

Give students background information about the Louisiana Separate Car Act of 1890 and Plessy's efforts to bring the injustice to the national consciousness. The Louisiana Separate Car Act required railroad riders to ride in separate cars, based on race. Mr. Plessy, 1/8 African American, was arrested for violating the Separate Car Act. In the landmark court case Plessy v. Ferguson, Mr. Plessy and his group of supporters unsuccessfully challenged this law.

Look at the wording of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and discuss the following:

1. Did the Separate Car Act violate Mr. Plessy's rights according to the 14th Amendment?

2. What were the opposing positions in the Plessy v. Ferguson court case?

3. Why should the court rule in favor of Plessy?

4. Why should the court rule in favor of the Louisiana Railroad?

5. How would you rule if you were Judge Ferguson? Why? Give reasons for your opinion on the case.

Distribute the political cartoon about the Plessy v. Ferguson case. (Appendix B 1)and the associated activity worksheet (Appendix B 2). This worksheet will help students interpret and analyze the Plessy v. Ferguson political cartoon.

This can be done as homework or in class, if time permits. If assigned for homework, use as the opening of Day 2 lesson.

DAY 2: PART 1 (15 minutes)

Review the Plessy v. Ferguson case as represented in the political cartoon. Discuss student responses to the worksheet questions. Mention the deterioration of separate facilities over the decades following the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling.

Introduce students to the situation in California involving Mexican-American students through the 8-minute video by Sylvia Mendez entitled "Desegregating California's Schools" to bring authenticity to the lesson (this video is available free online at http://www.teachersdomain.org/resource/osi04.soc.ush.civil.mendez/; it also appears as web resource 4 below).

Ask students to focus on the conditions in Hoover School and the memories of Sylvia Mendez regarding her experiences there. You can also use the photographs in Appendix C 1 and C 3 to enhance student understanding of the Mexican-American situation at the time.

Introduce students to the specifics of the Mendez v. Westminster California court case. Ask students the following questions:

1. What are the opposing positions in the court case?

2. Why should the court rule in favor of Mr. Mendez?

3. Why should the court rule in favor of the Westminster School District?

4. Does requiring the Mexican-American children to attend segregated schools violate their rights under California law? Why/Why not? Give reasons to support your answer.

5. Does requiring the Mexican-American children to attend segregated California schools violate their rights under the U.S. Constitution Fourteenth Amendment? Why/Why not? Give reasons to support your answer.

DAY 2: PART 2 (20-25 minutes)

Distribute the worksheet "You Be the Judge" (Appendix C 4). Students will place themselves in the position of the judge hearing the Mendez v. Westminster case. Students may work individually or in small groups. Have students choose a position, and write a well-supported response. Students/groups may share the responses with the class.

Practice and Reinforcement

Research the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) using web resources 1-3. Students should attempt to discover the opposing positions, major players, final decision, and impact on education today. Students may work in groups of four, with each student presenting a portion of the required information to the class.

Please see web resources below.

Web Links:
Describes the five cases in Brown.

Chief Justice Earl Warren's Brown opinion.

PBS website discussing Brown and its consequences.

Mendez v. Westminster: Desegregating CA Schools.

Supplementary Materials







For more information about the Teaching American History Program click here