School Integration Pioneer Wins Medal Of Freedom

Hear Mendez's Story

In the 1940s, Sylvia Mendez was one of the first Mexican-Americans to integrate California schools. This week, she and others received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Last year on NPR, Mendez talked about what it was like to integrate a school.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

A famous writer, a basketball star, a former president, last night they all received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. There was also a less familiar honoree.

BARACK OBAMA: For Sylvia Mendez, a lifelong quest for equality began when she was just eight years old.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

In 1947, Sylvia Mendez was one of the first Mexican-Americans to integrate the California schools. That's after a federal court ruled that schools could not be segregated on the basis of national origin. The case was called Mendez versus Westminster.

NORRIS: On NPR last year, for the project StoryCorps, Sylvia Mendez talked about what it was like to integrate a school.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

SYLVIA MENDEZ: This little white boy comes up, and he says: What are you doing here? You don't belong in this school. They shouldn't have Mexicans here. And I started crying because I've always been that way.

NORRIS: I don't want to be in that school. And she says: Don't you realize that this is what we fought for? Of course, you're going to stay in that school and prove that you're just as good as he is.

BLOCK: That's civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez, one of 15 honorees who received the President Medal of Freedom yesterday.

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