Civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez received the Presidential Medal of Freedom today along with fourteen others.
The Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian honor, for those who have made "important contributions to the United States' national security, world peace, culture or other significant public or private endeavors," states the Execute Order. Among the other recipients is poet and author Maya Angelou; former president George H. W. Bush and basketball player Bill Russell. These people all represent "the best of who we are and who we aspire to be," said President Obama in a speach prior to the presentation.
Born in California in 1936, Mendez played a key role in the desegregation of schools in the state when she was only 8 years old. When her parents (shown here) were denied in their attempt to enroll Mendez and her two brothers in the "white only" school in their neighborhood, they took action.
Organizing members of the Hispanic community behind their cause, Mexican immigrant Gonzalo and his Puerto Rican wife Felicitas filed a lawsuit in Federal Court resulting in the historical case Mendez v. Westminster, 1946.
As a direct result of this case California soon became the first state in the nation to end segregation in schools, paving the way for Brown v. Education to end segregation nationwide less than a decade later.
As an adult, Mendez worked as a nurse in her native California for 30 years and adopted two girls. She continues to travel around the country giving lectures on the historic contributions made by her parents and the co-plaintiffs to the desegregation of the U.S.
The award-winning documentary, 'Mendez v. Westminster: For all the Children/Para Todos los Ninos,' by Sandra Robbie, aired on multiple networks around the country to commemorate the case.
In Sept.2007, the Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School held its Grand Opening in the Mendez's hometown of Santa Ana, Calif.
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