One of today's recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom was Sylvia Mendez, a woman who first stepped into the civil rights movement when she was a young schoolgirl in Orange County. Mendez, who lives in Fullerton, was the child behind the landmark 1945 case known as Mendez v. Westminster, which challenged school segregation in California.
The decision in 1947 by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals signaled the end of school segregation in the state, setting a precedent for Brown v. Board of Education seven years later. A story in the Orange County Register described the conditions that prompted Mendez's parents to file suit:
Mendez was just 8 years old when her parents, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, sued Westminster School District for turning their children away from an all-white school.
The children were sent instead to the “Mexican” school, a two-room wooden shack with worn, wobbly desks and chairs, and tattered textbooks – hand-me-downs from other campuses.
In the 2008 video above, Mendez shares her experience during a visit to the University of Georgia. The Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian honor.