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August 19, 2007

Sixty years ago, a landmark desegregation ruling opened the door toward equality in education for Mexican-American students in California — and ultimately for all students in the United States.

“This stamp captures the vision and inspiration of a group of parents who fought the odds to make a difference for all Americans,” said Thurgood Marshall, Jr., member, U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors, and stamp dedicating official.

Marshall’s father, Thurgood Marshall, represented the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as a friend of the court in the case. Seven years later, Marshall drew upon key legal points from Mendez et al. v. Westminster School District et al. in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which abolished segregation in schools nationwide.

“My father often spoke of the importance of individuals working together to achieve great things,” said Marshall, Jr. “The Mendez, Estrada, Guzman, Palomino and Ramirez families certainly proved the power of a small group to overcome obstacles. Together, they took some of the first courageous steps on our nation’s journey to win equality in education for Americans of every color.”

When their children and nephews were denied entry into a local school in 1943, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez took up the cause of desegregating Orange County schools. The next year, with no success through meetings and attempted negotiations, they and four other families filed suit in U.S. District Court. They claimed that their children, along with 5,000 other children of “Mexican and Latin descent,” were victims of unconstitutional discrimination by being forced to attend separate Mexican” schools in the Westminster, Garden Grove, Santa Ana and El Modena school districts.

“Our five families — Estrada, Guzman, Palomino, Mendez and Ramirez — are recognized for their contributions to the civil rights movement,” said Sylvia Mendez, who was in the third grade when she and her brothers were turned away from a “white” school. “This beautiful stamp demonstrates how important equality and education are for everyone. It will help me, as the daughter of Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, to share the significance of my parents’ and the other families’ achievements with the American people.”

The families received a ruling in their favor in February 1946. The school district appealed but on April 14, 1947, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the district court’s ruling. Two months later, a bill affirming desegregation of California schools was signed into law by Governor Earl Warren (R), who was Chief Justice of the United States when Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954.

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