Most Americans are well aware of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which successfully desegregated schools throughout the U.S. But how many have heard of Mendez et al. v. Westminster, the local Orange County case which preceded Brown by seven years and literally laid much of the groundwork for ending segregation not only in California but in the the rest of the country as well? Mendez was filed in 1945 after the Mendez, Ramirez, Estrada, Guzman, and Palomino families (all Mexican-Americans) were barred from registering their children in “all-white” public elementary schools in the Westminster, Garden Grove, Santa Ana and El Modena school districts. David C. Marcus, a well-known attorney who specialized in immigration and civil rights cases involving Mexican-Americans, represented the families. The oldest of five sons, he was born in Iowa in 1904 to Mary (née Cohen) and Benjamin, Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia who met and married in the U.S. His father started out as a peddler but later succeeded as a retail store owner, enabling David to attend both UCLA and USC law school. In Mendez, Marcus argued forcefully that children’s education is hampered by segregation, that segregated facilities are necessarily unequal, and that children must have equal opportunity in education. Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled in the families’ favor, ending discriminatory practices in local school districts in 1946, which quickly led to the repeal of state segregation laws less than a year later. Although not formally cited in Brown, Marcus’ arguments helped shape Earl Warren and Thurgood Marshall’s thoughts in the landmark case. In fact, Marcus turned down an invitation from Marshall to participate in the Brown case (citing his solo practice in LA), but he did send Marshall all his Mendez case files. Marcus’ granddaughter Anne K. Mcintyre said she “heard about the case my whole life” and that her grandfather considered it his finest achievement.
Dalia Taft, archivist of the Orange County Jewish Historical Society, highlights images from the archives every month. For more information, please visit https://www.jccoc.org/pages/oc-jewish-historical-society. You can also contact Dalia at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (949) 435-3400, ext. 360. The Orange County Jewish Historical Society is a program of the Merage Jewish Community Center and is funded by the Jewish Community Foundation Orange County.