Sylvia Mendez: Pioneer in the School Desegregation Movement
From Jeffrey Sudduth
Hispanic Heritage Month Event | Constitution Day Event
Co-Sponsored by Gamma Phi Omega International Sorority, Inc., Organization of Latin American Students, Sigma Lambda Beta Fraternity, the Diversity Center, and NPR Illinois / 91.9 UIS
Sylvia Méndez, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, will speak about her life as an American civil rights activist. When Ms. Mendez was eight years old, her parents organized with four other Mexican-American families and filed a law suit in federal court against four Orange County school districts. Her family’s case, Mendez v. Westminster, paved the way in 1947 for the famous Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education which led to desegregation of schools across the country eight years later.
Their story demonstrates how a small group of citizens can and have changed the course of history. Their actions led to desegregation across the United States, but the current inequalities in the American education system, referred to as de facto segregation, remind us that we cannot take past successes for granted. We must continue to work for equal access to, and achievement in our schools.
Sylvia Méndez was born in 1936 in Santa Ana, CA to a Puerto Rican mother and a Mexican father. As a young child, she attended a school for Hispanic children. When she was eight-years old, her parents decided Sylvia, her brothers, and their cousins should attend a nearby Whites-only school with better resources. The school said Sylvia’s lighter-skinned cousins could attend, but she and her brothers could not.
Their law suit against four Orange County school districts had long-term repercussions in California and across the nation. Their victory led to desegregation of California schools and ultimately to desegregation throughout the United States after Brown v. Board of Education.
Sylvia made her career as a registered nurse and now devotes her time to traveling and lecturing on the historic contribution she and her parents made to civil rights in the U.S. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.