Mi Casa Es Mi Casa

How Fullerton resident Alex Bernal's 1943 battle against housing discrimination helped change the course of American civil rights

The local press didn’t pay attention to Bernal’s victory; the Fullerton News-Tribune devoted just a 200-word story to the ruling. But the Bernal case received international attention. The Mexican consul, noting the Good Neighbor Policy between Mexico and the United States at the time, said the decision “proved that the politics of inter-American rapprochement isn’t an utopia, but a reality.” United Press put the story on its wire, and Time wrote a brief report complete with pictures of a suited Alex, his wife, and daughters Maria Theresa and Irene, everyone smiling—the all-American family that had “moved across the tracks to stay.” Time also dramatized the Bernal story in its nationally syndicated radio program, March of Time. And the case even received mention in American Me, a 1949 book that was one of the first positive portrayals of Mexicans in American publishing.

Meanwhile, a Los Angeles-based African-American weekly, the California Eagle, splashed the Bernal decision across its front page, with headlines proclaiming, “California Judge Jolts Nation,” “Race Property Bars Held Illegal!” and “Race Housing Bars are Falling!” The Eagle, along with other African-American organizations, had long tried unsuccessfully to fight housing covenants in Los Angeles against blacks; the newspaper saw the Bernal victory as crucial to its cause, contrasting it to the “stolid silence of city and county officials concerning race restrictions on the city’s housing.”

“This decision,” the paper concluded, “may be an important instrument in helping to solve the serious wartime-housing situation in the Los Angeles area as it applies to Mexicans and especially to Negro people.”

Maria Theresa and Irene holding their father's secret album
John Gilhooley
Maria Theresa and Irene holding their father's secret album
Sharon Kennedy and her mother, Natalie, in the offices of the Observer
Kimberly Valenzuela
Sharon Kennedy and her mother, Natalie, in the offices of the Observer

But the case wasn’t finished. On Sept. 20, Hagenstein filed a motion taking exception to Ross’ ruling. He argued that the 14th Amendment didn’t apply to the Bernals, as they were Mexicans, and mentioned again that Mexicans would bring down housing prices. Two weeks later, he filed another motion, now seeking to vacate Ross’ decision; Hagenstein cited case precedents in arguing for the legality of housing covenants.

The judge was not swayed. In his final ruling on Nov. 15, Ross wrote that he felt that if he enforced housing covenants, a higher court would eventually find them unconstitutional. His bigger concern, however, was that it was against the philosophy “of the United States and of the state of California to enforce a restriction on occupancy based solely on nationality of the persons against whom the restrictions are sought. This is especially true when the nationality affected is that of a friendly neighbor and when one particular nationality is named.”

*     *     *

In April 1967, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Loren Miller sat down for an interview with Lawrence de Graaf that is now part of the collection at Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Oral and Public History. Miller would pass away a couple of months later, but he was already a legendary figure in the civil-rights movement for attacking the very sort of housing covenants that Bernal and Marcus had defeated 25 years earlier. It was Miller who, along with future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, in 1948 successfully argued Shelley v. Kraemer before the nation’s highest court, a decision that ended housing covenants nationwide. It was Miller who brought national attention to the issue in 1945 with what’s commonly called the Sugar Hill case; like Doss v. Bernal, it involved white neighbors suing to remove African-Americans from their neighborhood, in this instance African-American movie stars such as Hattie McDaniel and Ethel Waters who lived in the West Adams district of Los Angeles. And it was Miller who had argued the successful California Supreme Court appeal of Fairchild v. Raines, a 1944 case involving a Pasadena African-American family that historians usually cite as the first legal finding against housing covenants.

Miller was also a historian of civil-rights lawsuits—his 1966 book, The Petitioners: The Story of the Supreme Court of the United States and the Negro, is a beautifully written chronology of the African-American legal experience. The judge knew the importance of the cases he had tried as a lawyer. But ever the humble judicial officer, he told de Graaf that it was the judge in the Sugar Hill case, Thurmond Clarke, who deserved the most credit for ending housing covenants, as he claimed that the decision was the first time someone had successfully cited the 14th Amendment in fighting segregation in the courts. “Unfortunately for him and for his place in history,” said Miller, the case didn’t go further than Los Angeles Superior Court. “[Clarke is] entitled to a great deal of credit for his courage and his foresight in looking ahead and correctly gauging the trend of constitutional decisions.”

But Miller was wrong—it was Doss v. Bernal that first successfully argued against housing covenants. There’s no suggestion in Miller’s papers, held at the Huntington Library in San Marino, that he ever heard of the case or used it as legal precedent in his anti-segregation lawsuits, despite the widespread publicity at the time of the decision in Southern California’s African-American community.

Nevertheless, the Bernal case did create a civil-rights tidal wave. In the fall of 1943, a group of Mexican parents in San Bernardino decided to sue the city because it allowed Mexicans and African-Americans to swim in the public pool only on the day before workers cleaned it. Their lawyer, Marcus, successfully argued Lopez v. Seccombe in federal district court in 1945, again using the Fifth and 14th amendments as his legal hammers against segregation. The publicity for this case convinced a group of Mexican parents in Orange County to hire Marcus for their lawsuit challenging school segregation in Orange County; Mendez, et al. v. Westminster, et al. preceded the more-famous Brown v. Board of Education by a decade (see “Separate But Unequal,” Nov. 6, 2009). They found Marcus after Bernal had passed along the attorney’s card to a fellow produce-truck driver. Filing an amicus curiae brief on behalf of Mendez, et al. once that case reached a federal appeals court was none other than Miller.

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