Friday, December 3, 2010

Civil rights history — in Orange County

Hector Tobar -

Years before the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that state laws segregating public schools were unconstitutional, Gonzalo Mendez, Lorenzo Ramirez and other working parents led a battle that forced school districts in central Orange County to integrate.

Those districts segregated children of Mexican descent.Latino parents confronted school administrators, held community meetings and eventually went to court. In 1947 they won. Their victory in federal court helped integrate all California schools and reverberated throughout the Southwest, where segregation of Latino students was common.

But if you go looking today in Orange County for the places where that history unfolded, you'll find it tough going. There are no markers or street signs directing you to the homes, offices and schoolhouses where a few parents fought and eventually defeated a racist status quo.

The center of Orange is one of Southern California's great gems. Its circular Plaza, first laid out in the late 19th century, is a vision of friendly, small-town U.S.A.

But a block north of the Plaza is an old theater marquee that today houses a religious center. In the 1940s, it was the Orange Theatre. Whites sat in the orchestra section, Mexicans in the balcony — until a Mexican American soldier returning from World War II refused to obey the rules.

"If you don't move up to the balcony," an usher told him, "I'll have to call my manager."

"I just came from fighting the Nazis," he said. "I'm pretty sure I can handle your manager."

Such scenes played out across California in the years after World War II, as returning black and Latino vets confronted old prejudices at home.

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