A first grade class at Hoover Elementary in 1944. Credit: KCET

Have you ever heard of a court case called Mendez v. Westminster?


But you probably know something about Brown v. Board of Education – the landmark Supreme Court case that outlawed school segregation for black children, right?

Well, Mendez v. Westminster is the 1947 Orange County case that took place during the Holocaust of WWII and Japanese internment. Mendez had the impact of making California the first state to end school segregation, paving the way to Brown v. Board of Education seven years later. Among many surprises, Thurgood Marshall and Earl Warren were involved in both the Mendez and Brown cases.

Does this shock you?

I have spent the last 15 years devoted to sharing this inspiring story because the stories we tell, tell us who we are and who we can be, and this powerful chapter in American civil rights history tears down the walls to reveal the truth: it’s about all of us. This is a mind-blowing message for all of our communities especially today. Students from Beverly Hills to the Bronx are stunned and excited to learn about Mendez. But more than that, once they learn of Mendez, our students are angry that this story, THEIR STORY, a triumph of diverse people and communities working together to change the nation, is not being told and celebrated the way they feel it should be. They feel they have been robbed of a legacy that changes the way they see themselves and America.

There is an even deeper reason for sharing this story. Just like #oscarssowhite called out the systemic Jim Crow in Hollywood, excluding the Mendez story from our classrooms perpetuates the false narrative that the American civil rights struggle was only a black and white issue.

Make no mistake – the stories we tell have huge impact on how we perceive our place in society.

In Brown v. Board of Education, social scientists helped win the case with testimony of the “Good Doll, Bad Doll” study that showed both white children and black children overwhelmingly saw white dolls as “good” and labeled black dolls as “bad.” When asked by the researchers, “Which doll is most like you?”, the black children bent their heads in shame and slowly pointed to the “bad doll.” Heartbreaking. Where did the children learn this? From everything around them. Everything we see, every story we read, every advertisement, every movie, every nuanced statement, every secret whisper, everything is “Good Doll, Bad Doll,” and it makes an indelible impression that can scar minds and limit our ideas of who we are and who we can be. And we are tired of being constrained by the old stories of who we were when we know we can be so much more.

The Mendez story tells us that we are all connected in a great victory hard won together. People of all colors believed in us before we were even born. Mendez plaintiffs and the thousands in their supportive communities had hope for our future. Despite the current climate, so do I. Now it’s up to us to build a better tomorrow and Mendez can help us do that.

The good news is, for the last fifteen years, we have been laying the foundation to get Mendez into national awareness. The Mendez story has received White House Honors, a commemorative U.S. postage stamp, hundreds of news stories and was the subject of an Emmy-winning documentary I produced in 2002. Nonetheless, even though Mendez is included in California’s new ethnic study guidelines, it is rarely mentioned in our classrooms. But I’ve got a couple of ideas. And if we do this right, we can change all that.

2017 is the 70-year anniversary of Mendez v. Westminster and we are going loud and proud with a new tradition and community celebration called “Random Act of Mendez.” Here’s the background and how you can play:

The idea of Random Act of Mendez (RAM) came to me many years ago but just last fall I started working with an extremely talented fine arts student from Cal State Long Beach who also happens to be my college roommate’s son. Adam and I worked together to create a specially designed a RAM bead that is a stylized peace sign with a Dia de los Muertos feel. Very cool. Folks who buy a RAM bracelet will get one for themselves along with a second bracelet and a card to GIVE TO SOMEONE they catch doing a Random Act of Mendez which is defined as an act of Peace, Equity Education, Act of Kindness, Courage or Excellent Community Engagement. The bracelets will ship on September 1, in time for folks to celebrate RAM during Hispanic Heritage month – September 15 to October 15. The idea is that people of all colors whose names you may never see in history books contribute to the freedoms we have every day. Court cases start over something as simple as not being served cake. Not being able to sit where you want on the bus. Not being able to attend the school in your neighborhood. So every day, when you come home from Target and you’re putting away all of your goodies, remember: Everyone made that happen – from the folks in the parking lot all the way to the cashier who checked you out. Everyone participated. That is what American freedom is all about. Random Act of Mendez aims to honor peace in our communities though the contributions we make every day.

Part of the proceeds from RAM bracelets will be used to help fund Mendez training for educators through a new nonprofit project I’ve started called the Mendez Museum  Without Walls. Based in Old Towne Orange, this historic district is a time capsule of the segregation era just fifteen minutes from Disneyland. Right now, this museum without walls features an unforgettable Mendez v. Westminster tour on a vintage Disney trolley for which the public can buy tickets. Amazing sites include OC’s last standing Mexican school building, a formerly segregated movie theater and some incredible connections to the Civil War and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Volunteers are joining in to help raise money to offer an immersive three-day Mendez summer camp for educators so they can take this history home to their students all across the country. We aim to launch the camp in 2018.

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education desegregated our classrooms, through Mendez, we may finally desegregate the way we teach American civil rights history. I believe this story has the power to move us closer to being the nation whose dreams and values I continue to believe in: a nation where our children will not be judged by the color of their skin, or the person they love, or the family they come from, or the pronoun they use, or the religion they practice, or the inflection of their accent, or the money in their wallet, or their different ability. Mendez v. Westminster: for all the children…for all of us, that’s the story I want to tell with the values I want to celebrate. With the time I’ve got left on this planet, that’s the work I’m going to do.

Sandra Robbie is the writer/producer of the Emmy-Winning PBS documentary “Mendez vs. Westminster: For All the Children.”

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org

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