At a White House ceremony yesterday, President Barack Obama honored recipients of the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom. This award, America’s highest civilian honor, is bestowed on individuals who make especially laudable contributions to the country’s national interests. Among this year’s recipients is Sylvia Mendez, a civil rights activist of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, who more than six decades ago took the fight for school desegregation to the highest court in the nation.
Without the determination of a young Sylvia Mendez, the nation’s schools might look very different today. When she was eight years old, her parents attempted to enroll her in an all-white school in their community, but she was denied entry and told to go to the school for Mexican children. With the support of civil rights organizations and unions, her parents and four other families filed a lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles against four Orange County, Calif., school districts — including Westminster — on behalf of some 5,000 Hispanic-American school children.
The 1947 Mendez v. Westminster case became a landmark decision in the civil rights movement against segregation. Seven years later, then-lawyer now Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who argued Brown v. Board of Education, used arguments that he had filed for Mendez on behalf of the NAACP.
Mendez paid a personal price for her status as the first Hispanic student at an all-white school in California, but she worked hard to honor her parents’ ideals and sacrifices, and she is recognized today as a tireless advocate for civil rights issues. Now retired from a career in nursing, Mendez also devotes much of her time to speaking at schools, encouraging students to stay in school and get an education.
“She has made it her mission to spread her message of tolerance and opportunity to children of all backgrounds and all walks of life,” President Obama remarked during the ceremony.
“I never could have imagined as a child battling segregation that I would end up one day meeting the president and receiving such a tremendous honor,” Mendez said afterwards.