Keynote Speaker, Honorary Degree
Sylvia Mendez is a civil rights activist and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Mendez's role in the nation's history was sealed nearly 70 years ago when her parents — who were of Mexican and Puerto Rican origin, and residents of Orange County, Calif. — attempted to enroll her in a local all-white elementary school. The school was well-funded and had better resources than other local schools. Mendez was denied entrance due to her ethnicity and was directed back to the predominantly Mexican school. In response, her parents solicited support from the community and successfully filed the landmark lawsuit — Mendez, et al v. the Westminster School District, et al — which made California the first state to end school segregation in 1947. This historic victory established the legal precedent for Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court case that would end racial segregation in schools across the country almost a decade later.
Mendez received an associate of arts in nursing from Orange Coast Community College, and a bachelor of science in nursing and certificate in public health from California State University at Los Angeles. She had a successful 30-year career as a nurse; she retired early to take care of her ailing mother. Mendez and her mother had discussed the lawsuit often. However, when Google searches produced no information on the case, Mendez promised her mother she would work hard to inform the public about the battle that helped change the course of history. Her efforts inspired an Emmy Award–winning documentary about the lawsuit, a U.S. postal stamp, a school named after her parents, and an exhibit in the Los Angeles County Law Library. Mendez now visits schools across the country to educate Americans about the historic court case.
Last year, President Barack Obama bestowed upon Mendez the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for spreading messages of tolerance and opportunity to children of all backgrounds.
For inspiring a court case that stirred a nation to revisit its segregation policies, and for tirelessly working to have these efforts known, Brooklyn College honors Sylvia Mendez with the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.