John O. Gonzales, a longtime social-rights activist for Southern California's Mexican American community and founding president of a Los Angeles council of the League of United Latin American Citizens in the early 1940s, has died. He was 91.
Gonzales died of natural causes Dec. 6 at his home in Dana Point, said his daughter, Diane Lichterman.
"He was a fearless stalwart in the defense of Southern California Latinos in the early to mid-'40s when few dared raise their head above the crowd for fear of violent retribution," Edward Morga, a former national LULAC president, wrote in an e-mail.
Gonzales, who helped organize the formation of new LULAC councils up and down the state in the 1940s, was the organization's vice president general when LULAC members in Orange County helped organize a class-action lawsuit against four Orange County school districts that were forcing Mexican children to attend schools separate from white students.
The landmark case -- Mendez et al. vs. Westminster School District of Orange County et al. -- led to the end of segregation in California schools in 1947 -- nearly seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision that declared unconstitutional the racial segregation of public schools.
Margie Aguirre, chairwoman of the California LULAC Heritage Committee, said Gonzales helped raise funds for the Orange County case and wrote an article in the LULAC News in December 1946 that helped bring national attention to the case, which was then under appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In his article, headlined "Calling All LULACs," Gonzales wrote passionately of a time in the future "when all persons regardless of former ancestry, color or creed shall have the right to equal educational and economic opportunities and the equal protection of our laws."
In rallying members of his organization to provide national support for the case, Gonzales wrote: "Never in the history of LULAC has the call to arms been more urgent or for a more worthy cause, and I should like to feel that when this fight is over each of us shall have cause to be proud."
"He's not the one that was the catalyst [for the case], but he does have a significant role in the development of a rallying call to change the situation of how the education system in Orange County was being handled," Aguirre said.
In 2003, Gonzales received a certificate of special congressional recognition for his work during the Mendez case. A year later, the Assembly presented him a certificate of recognition in honor of his receiving the Patriots with Civil Rights Award from LULAC.
Gonzales was born in Avon, Colo., on March 29, 1915, and moved to Phoenix when he was in elementary school.
In Phoenix, where he married his wife, Dolores, in 1935, he worked as a clerk in the county recorder's office, started a newspaper with a friend dealing with political issues in the Latino community and began his involvement with LULAC.
He moved to Los Angeles in 1939 and worked as a welder in a shipyard on Terminal Island.
He did undergraduate work at UCLA and transferred to Western State College of Law in Los Angeles, where he graduated in 1950. He later worked in the Los Angeles district attorney's office on child support cases.
In addition to his daughter Diane, Gonzales is survived by his daughter Anita Fernandez, sons John Jr. and Paul, 12 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. His wife died in 1997.