Charlotte – Latino civil rights pioneer Sylvia Mendez brought her education crusade to North Carolina, urging Hispanic students to overcome the obstacles in their path and continue their studies.
"There's nothing in this world you can't do if you put your mind to it," Mendez told an audience of more than 150 students Thursday at Garinger High School in Charlotte.
The 75-year-old Mendez made her first visit to North Carolina at the invitation of the Levine Museum of the New South, which this year hosted the exhibition "Para Todos Los Niños: Fighting Segregation Before Brown."
The exhibit tells the story of Mendez, a retired nurse who at the age of 9 found herself and her brothers barred from a whites-only school in Westminster, California.
Her parents, Mexican immigrant Gonzalo and Felicitas, who hailed from Puerto Rico, joined four other Latino families in filing a class-action lawsuit against four Orange County school districts on behalf of 5,000 Hispanic children.
Sylvia said her parents "were very brave and also humble because they kept going despite people's accusations that they were communists and rejection from other Hispanics for fighting against the established society. They knew they were doing the right thing."
The family's attorney, David Marcus, argued before the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles that segregation based on nationality violated the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.
On March 18, 1946, that court ruled in favor of the Mendez family but Westminster and three other Orange County school districts appealed the decision and the case, Mendez vs. Westminster, went before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
African-American attorney Thurgood Marshall, who later became a Supreme Court justice, filed an amicus brief for the Hispanics on behalf of the NAACP in that appeals case, in which the court upheld the earlier ruling.
Seven years later, Marshall drew on arguments used in the Mendez case in obtaining a historic victory in the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision, which ended segregation of public schools nationwide.
"Before the country's schools were integrated, that had already been achieved years before in California. This victory is not very well known and so when my mother was about to die she made me promise that I would take responsibility for getting the word out," she said.
Since then, Sylvia's mission in life has been to speak at schools, universities and organizations in the United States and around the world to tell her family's story and motivate other Hispanics and minority group members to stay in school and fight for their right to a quality education.
"I remember that when we won the case and I went to school, a white boy said 'what was I, a Mexican, doing here.' I ran crying to my mother. I told her I wasn't going to go to school anymore, but she explained the battle they had waged so I could have an education," Mendez said.
On Feb. 15, President Barack Obama awarded Mendez the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor, for making it her "life mission to spread a message of tolerance and opportunity to children of all backgrounds and all walks of life."