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Fullerton Civil Rights Pioneer Receives Medal Of Freedom

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(credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

(credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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SANTA ANA (CBS) — A Fullerton woman received the presidential Medal of Freedom Tuesday for her role in the civil rights movement.

Sylvia Mendez’s parents sued a school district in Orange County when some of their children were not allowed to enroll in a Westminster school in 1943. That lawsuit, sought the end of “white” and “Mexican” schools, laid the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the end of school segregation.

When the Mendez family finally won and helped end segregation in California schools in 1947, Mendez came home from school one day upset.

“She went home in tears, begging to leave the school,” President Barack Obama said today in a ceremony at the White House with the award winners. “Her mother wouldn’t have it. She told Sylvia, ‘Don’t you realize that’s why we went to court? We’re just as good as he is.’ Sylvia took those words to heart.”

Mendez frequently visits schools and other forums to tell her family’s story and place in civil rights history.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Garden Grove, also praised Mendez.

“It brings great pride to the people of Orange County that Sylvia Mendez (received) this award,” Sanchez said. “Sylvia’s powerful testimony, given at the tender age of nine, led to a landmark decision giving Mexican American families in Orange County access to an abundance of educational resources and opportunities previously restricted by the color of their skin.”

(©2010 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services contributed to this report.)

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