Battle Creek native, author tackles diverse history of legal battles before Brown v. Board, critical race theory

Battle Creek native Dr. Marisela Martinez-Cola has written her first book, "The Bricks before Brown," published by the University of Georgia Press. It focuses on Chinese American, Native American and Mexican Americans' struggle for educational equality leading up to the seminal 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. the Board of Education, that deemed segregated school unconstitutional.

Marisela Martinez-Cola is a 1992 graduate of Battle Creek Central High School, and became the first in her family to go to college when she attended the University of Michigan.

Now an associate professor of sociology at Morehouse College in Atlanta, she describes herself as a proud "MiChicano" as a Michigan native and Mexican American.

Martinez-Cola has written her first book, "The Bricks before Brown," published by the University of Georgia Press. It focuses on Chinese American, Native American and Mexican Americans' struggle for educational equality leading up to the seminal 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. the Board of Education, that deemed segregated schools unconstitutional.

Ahead of the book's release on Monday, Martinez-Cola spoke to the Battle Creek Enquirer. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity:

Enquirer: What compelled you to write "The Bricks before Brown?"

MMC: I worked in cultural affairs at various universities and colleges around the country, and in that capacity I would advise students of color and organize programs… After a Black History Month celebration, I had some Asian American and Latino students come into my office and one of the students said, ‘Did we do anything, or did we sit on the sidelines?’

So I began collecting different stories. You hear about Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks. Is there somebody who has a similar background in other communities? With Malcom X, for Latinos and Chicanos, there’s a gentleman named Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, he’s known as the fist of the Chicano movement. Cesar Chavez is a person who used the peaceful model put forth by Martin Luther King Jr. for the United Farm Workers.

I started to see those parallels. The thing I always wanted to make clear is you can’t put an equal sign between the experiences of African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans. We have different experiences. But the way racism works throughout history, it’s so efficient in what it does that it shows up in different ways in those communities. You can kind of put a similar sign.

Enquirer: What has the early feedback been like?

MMC: So many people were genuinely interested because it’s information they did not know before. A lot of people don’t even know these cases exist and don’t even think about, 'Gosh, I wonder what the whole story is before Brown (vs. Board of Education).' There’s a truncated story that’s told. When we think about school desegregation, we think about it in the 1950s, in the south and something between Black and white people. My research as I’m uncovering this, you realize it started 100 years earlier in Boston, Massachusetts, and has involved a multi-racial group of people. It goes across the country. It was really fun sharing this.

Enquirer: The timing had to be right for you personally. But did the timing with a recent cultural reckoning on racial justice push you to publish this now?

The cover of "The Bricks before Brown," a book written by Battle Creek native Marisela Martinez-Cola.
The cover of "The Bricks before Brown," a book written by Battle Creek native Marisela Martinez-Cola.

MMC: It’s been interesting because I felt like people’s hearts are more open to listening to these different narratives, reading about these different narratives, learning about these different individuals throughout history, which is refreshing to see.

But I’m not going to lie; the backlash against (Critical Race Theory) – which is a theory I use in this book to help talk about and explain these cases – the backlash against CRT has been profound and incredibly surprising.

One of the things I try to demystify what critical race theory is by explaining that it’s really looking at the systems and our world saying, are people thriving? And if not, why?

Enquirer: Who is the audience for this book?

MMC: This book is not meant for just scholarly audience... The stories about the cases are ones that I want anybody to be able to read, when you get a chance to learn about Mamie Tape, and Sylvia Mendez and Alice Piper; these three young girls and their families and how they fought for their rights to an equal education. I want anybody to be able to read that.

I think about those students who asked me, ‘Did we do anything?’ And I feel like I have a book to show them now that says, yes you did. But it’s complicated, it’s not a clean story that we need to look at and embrace.

I want to write something somebody would read and be impacted by it. I want them to feel inspired by these stories, the same way I’ve been.

Contact reporter Nick Buckley at nbuckley@battlecreekenquirer.com or 269-966-0652. Follow him on Twitter:@NickJBuckley

This article originally appeared on Battle Creek Enquirer: Battle Creek native writes book on legal battles before Brown v. Board