Edward R. Roybal to be honored with Presidential Medal of Freedom

Former Rep. Edward R. Roybal of California is remembered as a devoted public servant who believed the role of government was to help people, including…

The late Rep. Edward R. Roybal of California is among the 19 individuals who will be honored this year with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (Photo credit: Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Former Rep. Edward R. Roybal of California is remembered as a devoted public servant who believed the role of government was to help people, including the underserved.

He served as an elected official — first as a city council member in Los Angeles and then as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives — for more than four decades. He also co-founded the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as well as the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Throughout his political career, Roybal spoke out against injustices and wasn’t afraid to stand up for what he believed in even when others advised him it could cost him his political future. He died of respiratory failure complicated by pneumonia at age 89 in 2005, but his legacy lives on.

SEE ALSO: Longest-serving Latino members of Congress

Now, he is among the 19 people who have been chosen to receive the nation’s highest civilian honor: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The medal is awarded every year to people “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.” A ceremony will be held at the White House on Nov. 24 to honor this year’s recipients.

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) will accept the medal on her father’s behalf. In a press release, she said she and her family are “deeply honored that President Obama is honoring our father by posthumously awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his life’s work.”

“Our father was a consensus builder who labored quietly and effectively on issues important not only to the communities he represented but also to the entire nation,” Roybal-Allard said. “Americans are healthier and better educated thanks to his unceasing efforts.”

Edward R. Roybal, wife

In this photo, former Rep. Edward R. Roybal appears with his wife, Lucille Beserra Roybal. (Photo credit: Lucille and Edward R. Roybal Foundation)

Roybal was born on February 10, 1916 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His family moved to the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles when he was 6 years old. He studied business administration at the University of California at Los Angeles and then law at Southwestern University.

He served in the U.S. Army during World War II and worked several years for the California Tuberculosis Association before making his first run for public office in 1947. That year, he ran for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council but was defeated.

SEE ALSO: Lucille Beserra Roybal, wife of pioneer of Latino politics in US, dead at 95

After the election, he helped create the Community Service Organization through which he fought against discrimination in housing, employment and education. The organization also held massive voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives in East Los Angeles in 1949, which helped Roybal get elected to the Los Angeles City Council that year.

He spent 13 years as a city council member before he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and was elected in 1962, becoming the first Hispanic from California to serve in Congress since 1879.

During his time in Congress, Roybal fought for issues important not only to Hispanics but also the elderly, the poor and the physically challenged.

One of the first bills he authored provided school districts funding for bilingual teaching programs. He also worked on various legislative proposals to restore funds for programs benefiting the elderly. In addition, he worked on health care issues, like providing care for people with disabilities and appropriating funding for HIV/AIDS research.

After serving 30 years in Congress, Roybal decided not to seek re-election in 1992. That year, his daughter, Lucille Roybal-Allard, was elected to serve California’s newly created 33rd congressional district.

After stepping down from Congress, Roybal continued advocating for public health, which earned him the Champion of Prevention Award from the Centers for Disease Control in 1999. Two years later, President Bill Clinton awarded Roybal the Presidential Citizens Medal for over 50 years of “exemplary deeds of service for our nation.”

SEE ALSO: A record number of Latinos will serve in the U.S. House

In a statement, Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Ruben Hinojosa described Roybal as being “among our most beloved Mexican-American heroes.”

“He was a relentless civil rights advocate whose work continues to make a difference in the lives of many Latinos and people of color today,” Hinojosa stated. “Enough cannot be said about the contributions the late Congressman made — from his work at the local level in Los Angeles to his time on the House Appropriations Committee where he championed federal funding for the most underserved communities.”