Sylvia Mendez received the Medal of Freedom today, from President Obama, at the White House.
As a child Mendez was denied access to an all white school… her parents sued and prevailed in Mendez v. Westminster, a landmark decision in the civil rights movement against segregation, according to Fox News.
Sylvia Mendez is the daughter of Gonzalo Mendez, a Mexican immigrant and Felicitas Mendez, a Puerto Rican immigrant, who fought so that Sylvia could have an equal education through the landmark court case battle of Mendez v. Westminster, et al.
In 1943, students of Mexican decent were required to enroll in separate schools from Caucasian children. When Sylvia was in third grade, she and her siblings were denied admission to the segregated, “white school” near their Orange County home. The Mendez family fought back. Their 1947 victory desegregated public schools in California and became an example for broader decisions, such as the Brown v Board of education.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is a decoration bestowed by the President of the United States and is – along with the equivalent Congressional Gold Medal bestowed by an act of U.S. Congress – the highest civilian award in the U.S. It recognizes those individuals who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” The award is not limited to U.S. citizens and, while it is a civilian award, it can also be awarded to military personnel and worn on the uniform.
The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating the Mendez v. Westminster case in 2007.