It is a little-known fact that a public swimming pool was at the heart of a series of civil rights lawsuits that culminated in the desegregation of America.
Before far more famous cases like Mendez v. Westminster and Brown v. Board of Education, there was Marcus v. Seccombe, a 1944 class-action civil rights lawsuit that determined whether the Mexican-American residents of San Bernardino, California, should be allowed to use the city’s public pool.
That is what the residents of San Bernardino’s Westside learned this September 15 at a local Mexican diner called Mitla Café, where San Bernardino Superior Court Judge John Pacheco decided to stage a reenactment of the landmark case.
The diner, located off former Route 66 in San Bernardino, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, is one of the oldest Mexican restaurants in Southern California — they’ve been dishing out the same hardshelled tacos for 85 years. More importantly, Mitla’s has served as a neighborhood anchor in the city’s Westside Barrio, where civil rights battles were planned and framed photos of café regular Cesar Chavez still grace the walls.
So when Judge Pacheco decided to coordinate a reenactment of the case, he thought he’d enjoy some tacos with it.
“This is where San Bernardino Chicanos made things happen,” Pacheco said to an audience of 150 residents and high school students from Inland Empire communities who turned out for the free event. “You kids should be proud of where you’re from.”
The reenactment centered around the closing arguments of Lopez v. Seccombe, a lawsuit brought by two newspaper editors and a Catholic priest who sued San Bernardino on behalf of its 8,000 Mexican-American residents.
On a summer day in 1943, the priest, J.R. Nuñez, and three Mexican children of his parish were refused admittance to the Municipal Plunge because they were Mexicans.
At that time, Mexicans were allowed to use the city’s Perris Hill Plunge Pool only one day a week, the day before it was drained and cleaned.
San Bernardino’s Mexican American Defense Committee and its members, newsmen Ignacio Lopez, Eugenio Nogueras, and Father Nuñez sent a letter to Mayor W.C. Seccombe and the City Council demanding that Mexicans be allowed to use the municipal pool during all of the hours it was open to the public.
However, Seccombe and city officials refused, arguing that Mexicans were too dirty to use the facilities.
In response, Lopez and other leaders of San Bernardino’s Mexican community filed a lawsuit against the city of San Bernardino.
Attorney David Marcus represented the Mexican community and argued that it was a case of discrimination. Presiding Judge Yanckwich agreed. It was among the earliest class-action civil rights lawsuits in the United States, setting a precedent for other famous decisions.
“Even though it’s a monumental case, it doesn’t have any attention,” Pacheco said. “I wanted to bring it here. Mira alli!”
At the reenactment, local lawyer Michael Bidart took the role of Marcus, representing San Bernardino’s Mexican-American residents.
Another lawyer, Michael Scaffidi, played H.R. Griffith, who defended the city’s discriminatory policies.
San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia stood in for his long-ago predecessor, William Seccombe.
Local kids played the two young children who were banned from the city pool.
Real-life California Appellate Court Judge Manuel Ramirez presided over everything, sitting underneath the Great Seal of California in the role of Leon Yanckwich, the federal judge.
Their audience hung on every word. Arguing passionately on behalf of the San Bernardino Latinos, Marcus said that a “separate but equal” precedent could not be applied in this particular case.
“They don’t have another pool to go to. They can go swim in the Santa Ana River – that’s their swimming pool,” Bidart, as Marcus, said.
Arguing the indefensible, Scaddi, as attorney Griffith, said the City of San Bernardino is charged to “protect the public from disease, violence, public discourse.” “First and foremost, a major concern is health issues. Many if not most of our Mexicans work in the fields. Unfortunately, these jobs are dangerous, dirty jobs. The Mexicans get to use the pool on Sunday. The pool is drained and cleaned on Monday at great expense. This is clear conduct of the city that there is a legitimate concern about the cleanliness of the pool because the Mexicans are in the fields.” Griffith said.
As Yanckwich, Judge Ramirez wondered if his decision could be extended to other public facilities like libraries. The audience laughed when he was told that there wasn’t a demand for library use.
Following the reenactment of the case, Judge Ramirez told the audience that while other court decisions may have had a larger impact on the civil rights movement, it was Lopez v. Seccombe, a case about denying Mexican-Americans access to a public pool, that set the precedent.
“The Seccombe case was the very first case in this country where a judge ruled against the segregation of Mexican-Americans in regard to public facilities,” he said.