Sylvia Mendez Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

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February 16, 2011
Photo Courtesy of the Mendez Family
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On February 15, President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, to Fullerton resident Sylvia Mendez.

Mendez has spoken across the country about Mendez v. Westminster, the successful federal class action lawsuit her parents, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez (pictured above) and others filed in 1945 on behalf of five thousand Mexican American students attending schools in four Orange County communities.

At various points in history, California law mandated the segregation of African American, Native American, and Asian American students. But the legislature never singled out Mexican Americans for legalized segregation. It was common practice, however, for districts with large Mexican American populations to segregate Mexican Americans into inferior schools.

In April 1947, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld a lower court decision forbidding the Orange County school districts defendants in Mendez v. Westminster to continue segregating Mexican American students.

The case served as a precedent for federal courts in Texas and Arizona to rule segregation of Mexican American students unconstitutional. It also contributed to the passage of a bill signed by California Governor Earl Warren repealing all school laws requiring segregation.

The Mendez case was also an important trial run for legal strategies and arguments successfully employed in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, in which the United States Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, ruled in 1954 that "separate but equal" schools were unconstitutional.

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