Each year, the White House awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom—“the Nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” Among the recipients for the 2011 Medal of Freedom is civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez, whose story of strength and perseverance in the face of discrimination and bigotry is a tale from which everyone can take heart—especially DREAM Act students who face an uphill battle this month.

The Mendezes came to the U.S. as immigrants, worked in the cotton fields and citrus groves, and eventually became small business owners. Then, in an amazing historical twist, leased a farm in Westminster, CA from the Minemitsu family—Japanese-Americans who were interned. Yet rather than being allowed to attend the “white” school closest to their farm, the Mendez children were told they must attend the “Mexican” school. The location of the Minemitsu farm placed the Mendez family within close proximity of the “White” school in Westminster, but the Mendez children—Sylvia, Gonzalo, Jr., and Geronimo—were denied enrollment and informed they must attend the Mexican school. Unwilling to accept such overt discrimination, the Mendez family and other parents eventually filed Mendez v. Westminster in federal court in 1945. With the help of good attorneys, as well as Latino, African American, and Asian civil rights organizations, the Mendezes successfully challenged the notion of “separate but equal.” Unlike other lawsuits of the era, the Mendez plaintiffs did not argue that their segregated schools were unconstitutionally inferior; instead they opposed segregation itself as violating the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause.

In his historic decision, Judge Paul McCormick concluded that “segregation fostered antagonisms in the children and suggests inferiority among them where none exists.”

Today, most Americans are familiar with the Brown v. Board of Education decision. However, the link between Mexican-Americans and African-Americans in the struggle for desegregation is not well known. The Mendez case and the relationship between the two cases is an important piece of U.S. history that deserves to be more widely acknowledged.

By awarding Ms. Mendez the Medal of Freedom, President Obama is taking an important step toward educating more Americans about this critical moment in U.S. history.

Photo by utexas.edu.