Several of this year’s recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the national government gives to civilians, are people of color. They include recording star Stevie Wonder and the late Alvin Ailey, legendary choreographer and founder of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater.
Still, many of the honorees made their presence felt on the political stage, challenging America’s presumptions about people of color.
Suzan Shown Harjo
Suzan Shown Harjo, who is Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, has long been an advocate for Native American rights.
Before she petitioned the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the federal trademark registrations for the Washington Redskins, she had already successfully stopped other sports teams from using names and mascots demeaning to Native American cultures.
She worked with Native American activist groups to get the University of Oklahoma to retire its mascot “Little Red” in 1970. Soon after, and with pressure from Harjo and these groups, Dartmouth University retired the “Indian” as its unofficial mascot. In the mid-1990s, Harjo persuaded the Kentucky Department of Education and schools to change all the school names and mascots that were Native American stereotypes.
In the 1960s, Harjo co-produced Seeing Red, the United States’ first Native American news program, at New York radio station WBAI. There, she met her husband, Frank Harjo, with whom she reported on New York’s vibrant Native American community. Her involvement in the local art scene is what initially sparked her interest in work advocating for the repatriation of sacred Native cultural objects held by museums. In 1974, Harjo began working as a legislative liaison representing Native American rights in addition to serving as the news director of the American Indian Press Association.
Under President Jimmy Carter, Harjo served as a congressional liaison for Indian affairs and supported Native American positions in the formation of federal policy. In this role, she worked toward the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which was intended to protect the traditional religious and cultural practices of Native Americans, Alaskans and Hawaiians.
She helped found the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and served as a founding trustee in the 1990s. Harjo was also the guest curator and general editor for a 2014 exhibition and book at the museum about treaties between the United States and Native American nations. Currently, Harjo serves as the president of the Morning Star Institute, a national Native American advocacy organization.
Patsy Mink (nee Takemoto) was born in 1927 to Mitama Tateyama and Suematsu Takemoto, second-generation Japanese-Americans living in Maui, Hawaii. Her grandparents had immigrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century in search of opportunity and found work in Hawaii’s sugar cane plantations. Her family’s pursuit of the American dream butted up against intense xenophobia in the years following the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, and those experiences deeply affected her ideas of what it meant to be an American.
Maui’s racially stratified plantation economy would come to inform Mink’s own politics for the rest of her life. Early in her career, Mink aligned herself with Hawaii’s Democratic minority in opposition to the historically Republican establishment.
Long before she became a lawmaker, Mink planned to practice medicine. According to the Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, she was rejected from the 20 medical schools that she applied to on the basis of her gender. Undeterred in her resolve to make a difference, Mink worked a number of menial jobs before an employer recommended that she apply to law school.
Mink believed that the University of Chicago Law School admitted her in 1948 because a clerical error misidentified her as a foreign student. After graduating with her J.D. in 1951, Mink still found virtually no career prospects open to her as a female, Japanese-American lawyer.
She moved back to Hawaii with her husband and daughter. With a loan from her father, Mink founded her own practice, where she specialized in criminal and family law. In addition to being the first Japanese-American female lawyer in the state and teaching at the University of Hawaii law school, Mink became involved in politics there.
Mink would eventually win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, and she became a prominent Asian-American voice in the early days of the civil rights movement, joining the NAACP in the 1960s. In 1972 she threw her hat into the ring and became the first Asian-American to run for the United States presidency, campaigning on an anti-war platform.
Though Mink did not ultimately secure the Democratic Party’s nomination, she cemented her legacy as a legislator that same year when she co-sponsored Title IX of of the United States Education Amendments. Title IX forever changed the way institutions of higher education welcomed women.
Two years later, she introduced the Women’s Educational Equity Act, which was signed into law by President Gerald Ford and outlines federal protections against gender discrimination of women in schools. After Mink returned to Congress in 1990, she co-sponsored a bill intended to combat gender bias in grade school, and in 1995 she organized and led the Democratic Women’s Caucus.
Mink served in the House until her death in September 2002.
Edward Roybal was a groundbreaking politician who became a role model for a generation of Latino elected officials. He served as the founding chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and was one of first Hispanic lawmakers to hold national office in the 20th century. In the 1970s, Roybal also co-founded the National Association of Latino Elected Leaders and Appointed Officials to help more Latinos carry out successful bids for public office.
Roybal began his political career in 1949, serving on the Los Angeles City Council, an experience he recounted in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. At his first meeting, Roybal balked when a colleague introduced him as “our new Mexican-speaking councilman, representing the Mexican people in his district.” Discarding his prepared remarks, Roybal responded by explaining that he was not Mexican but Mexican-American and did not speak “Mexican” but Spanish.
During his time on the council, Roybal worked with local political organizations to launch voter registration drives and efforts to stop police brutality. Roybal left the council for the halls of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1962, where he would serve for the next 30 years. As a representative from Los Angeles, Roybal supported measures that restored cuts to senior citizens’ health care programs, funded AIDS research in the early 1980s and created bilingual education programs.
Roybal’s congressional career wasn’t always smooth. In 1978, he was targeted by the House Ethics Committee for failing to report a political contribution. He received a reprimand after several House colleagues and Latino leaders from around the country came to his defense.
Roybal ended his career in Congress in 1993. Within California’s political circles, he became known as “The Old Man,” whose endorsement could play a decisive role for political victories. His daughter, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, began serving in Congress in 1993 and currently represents California’s 40th District.