A First-Class Civil Rights Lesson
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
Of all the little pictures for sale at the postage stamp counter -- American flags, Purple Hearts, Dumbo the Elephant, the Incredible Hulk -- one of the newest ones is not so familiar.
Two young people with tan skin study an open book, facing an orange sun. "Mendez v. Westminster 1947," says the stamp. First class, 41 cents. The U.S. Postal Service printed 40 million.
But what does it mean? How many layers of irony and history, coincidence and dreams can be rescued from oblivion and packed onto a stamp?
Here's a clue, printed on the image: "Toward equality in our schools." Then there's the year: 1947. This was seven years before the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case, right? Ten years before Little Rock . . .
"I had never heard of the Mendez case, like many people hadn't," says Rafael Lopez, the Mexican-born San Diego artist who designed the stamp.
Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez wanted to send their children to a "white school" in Westminster, Calif., a few miles from where Disneyland would soon rise from the orange groves like a hallucination.
They are dead now, but here in Washington one bright fall day is their daughter Sylvia Mendez, who was the 10-year-old girl who integrated the California schools. She's a 71-year-old retired nurse who still lives in Orange County, not far from Westminster. In Washington, she's a giddy tourist.
She visits a post office in Dupont Circle to buy some stamps, and the clerk wants to know what the new stamp is all about. She sits on the marble steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to have her picture taken, smiling into the sun.
"This is great!" she says, and adds: "I have a picture at home of Earl Warren in front of the Supreme Court."
Of course, Warren: One in the serendipitous cast of characters present for the obscure dress rehearsal that was the Mendez case. Seven years before he wrote the Brown decision as chief justice, he was the California governor, keeping a close eye on this earlier battle.
And Thurgood Marshall: He submitted a brief in the Mendez case, testing arguments he would later use in Brown.
Thurgood Marshall Jr., a Washington lawyer who happens to be on the Postal Service's Board of Governors, says he has been "repeatedly floored" by all the historical crosscurrents surging behind this little stamp.