She was a civil rights hero at age 8, a Rosa Parks before Rosa Parks whose struggle to end school segregation is still shockingly little known by the public, but nevertheless inspired a postal stamp. At 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sylvia Mendez will receive an even bigger honor: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award given by the commander in chief. If there was ever a reason to watch a live stream of White House event (at whitehouse.gov/live), this is it.
In 1943, Mendez and her Mexican-Puerto Rican family had just moved to Westminster, California, where schools were segregated. When her aunt, Sally Vidaurri, tried to enroll the kids in the white elementary school anyway, administrators told her that while her kids could stay because they were light-skinned, Sylvia would have to attend the Mexican school—a shabby, overcrowded two-room wooden shack.
Furious, Vidaurri left with all the kids and told Mendez’s parents about the exchange. That’s when Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez embarked on what would become a landmark case in the fight for desegregation. After doggedly gathering support in the Latino community for two years, The Mendezes and four Mexican American parents filed a lawsuit against four segregated Southern California school districts on behalf of 5,000 Latino kids. They won—twice—after an appeal by the school districts was batted down. Mendez v. Westminster attracted the attention of the civil rights organizations like the NAACP, which sent Thurgood Marshall to help boost the case; then-governor Earl Warren upheld the verdict. Marshall would later use his arguments in this case as a base for Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court case that ended segregation in the country. Presiding as Chief Justice? Earl Warren.
At one dramatic point during the trial, little Sylvia testified, disproving the districts’ weak argument that the Latino kids shouldn’t be allowed in the white schools because of a language barrier. Mendez spoke up loud and clear, and she continues to do so. After a 30-year nursing career, she has dedicated herself to traveling the country speaking on the importance of education—at a crucial time when Latinos still seriously lag behind in high school completion and college degrees. On Tuesday, her efforts will be rewarded.