Chestertown, MD — Three individuals who have contributed significantly to the cause of civil rights in America will be honored at Washington College's annual George Washington's Birthday Convocation at the College's Benjamin A. Johnson Lifetime Fitness Center on Friday, February 22, at 3:30 p.m.
Pioneering civil rights activist Gloria Richardson was at the forefront of the influential Cambridge Movement in the early 1960s. Former Senator Birch Bayh was instrumental in drafting the major civil rights legislation of the '60s. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch has chronicled the epic struggles and achievements of the civil rights era. All three will receive honorary degrees at Friday's convocation.
Also being honored are the 2008 Washington College Service Award recipients.
As leader of the African-American struggle for civil rights and economic justice in Cambridge, Maryland, in the early 1960s, Gloria Richardson helped define the course of the 20th-century Civil Rights movement. She was also the first woman to serve as the leader of a major local movement.
The so-called "Cambridge Movement," which lasted between roughly 1962 and 1964, is remembered today as the beginning of an important new chapter in the history of Civil Rights. As one recent historian wrote, "Richardson became the clarion caller who beckoned the state and nation to do what was right... She held true to her faith in a moral cause, her belief in how to achieve results, and her compassion for the alienated."
Born in 1922, Mrs. Richardson grew up in Cambridge, in a leading family in the African-American community there. She attended segregated public schools, and then went to Howard University, where she received a B.A. in sociology in 1942. After working as a civil servant in Washington during the war, she moved back to the Eastern Shore and eventually became involved in civil rights, working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to desegregate public accommodations.
Cambridge's black population had exercised the right to vote since 1869, but nearly 100 years later still endured grinding poverty, an unemployment rate twice that of local whites, segregated neighborhoods and schools, and denial of access to the vast majority of the community's public spaces.
In 1962, Mrs. Richardson and other local parents formed the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee (CNAC), organizing sit-ins in movie theatres, restaurants, and other segregated public places. Eventually, however, they also began to target deeper social issues, such as housing, health care, and adequate wages. In the summer of 1962, "Project Eastern Shore" registered new black voters in the region and encouraged political participation after decades of suppression by the white establishment.
When civil strife broke out in Cambridge the following summer, and the National Guard was called in to keep the peace, Mrs. Richardson—as chair of CNAC—walked a difficult and dangerous line, negotiating forcefully with local and state leaders and federal officials while holding together her loyal followers amid heavy pressure, mass arrests, and violent attacks.
After 1964, Mrs. Richardson moved to New York City, where she resides today. She has remained active in civil rights and anti-poverty campaigns, and still, at 85, works in the city's Department for the Aging.
Raised on his family's farm in western Indiana, Birch Bayh was elected to the United States Senate in 1962, arriving in Washington at a moment when America was on the brink of crisis and change—but it was also a moment when, thanks to John F. Kennedy's New Frontier, a spirit of youthfulness, energy and innovation was at the forefront of political life.
Senator Bayh was quickly embraced as a rising star by President Kennedy and then by President Johnson. Despite coming from a state where the Ku Klux Klan was still a force in local politics, he stepped into the vanguard of efforts to secure civil rights for African-Americans, cosponsoring the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Later, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he led the successful efforts to defeat President Nixon's nominations of two segregationist judges—Clement Haynesworth and Harrold Carswell—to the Supreme Court. As a result, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights would eventually honor Senator Bayh with their highest award for "his unyielding dedication to human equality and civil freedom."
Meanwhile, Senator Bayh also won renown as an expert on the U.S. Constitution. After the assassination of President Kennedy, he drafted the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which established the rules for presidential and vice-presidential succession. In the midst of the Vietnam War, he authored the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18—and which, at the stroke of a pen, enfranchised 11 million young Americans, who previously had been considered old enough to die for their country but not old enough to vote for their president.
With its passage, Senator Bayh became the only American since the Founding Fathers to draft more than one Amendment to the Constitution.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch is a nationally renowned authority on the American Civil Rights movement. His trilogy of books, America in the King Years, 1954-1968, is one of the most important works of American history of the past generation. It is a monumental work in every sense, drawing on almost 25 years of intensive research and covering more than 3,000 pages. The final volume, At Canaan's Edge, spanning the years 1965 to 1968, appeared to great acclaim in 2006.
America in the King Years "is not a biography of Dr. King," wrote Anthony Lewis in the New York Times. "It is a picture of the country and the times as he intersected with them.... It is a thrilling book, marvelous in both its breadth and its detail. There is drama in every paragraph." The New York Review of Books called the series nothing less than "an American Iliad."
Born in Atlanta in 1947, Mr. Branch grew up following the Civil Rights movement on television and witnessing its reverberations in his own community. After graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1968, he worked on voter-registration drives in the Deep South.
A diary that he kept during this time developed into a magazine article for the Washington Monthly and launched his career as a writer. In the years that followed, he served as a staff writer at the Washington Monthly, Harper's, and Esquire. He also has written for a wide variety of other publications, including The New York Times Magazine, the New York Review of Books, and The New Republic. He earned a Master's of Public Administration degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.
The first volume in the King trilogy, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, appeared in 1988 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History and the National Book Critics' Circle Award for General Nonfiction. Mr. Branch received a five-year MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (also known as a "genius grant") in 1991 and the National Humanities Medal in 1999.
The George Washington's Birthday Convocation also will serve as the occasion to honor members of the College family with the 2008 Washington College Service Awards. The President's Distinguished Service Award will be presented to Burton Brown, Annie Coleman and Barbara Heck. The President's Medal this year goes to the Summer Days Math and Science Camp, founded by Tracy Davenport. And the 2008 Alumni Service Award will be received by Karen Johnson '68.
A reception will follow the ceremony in the Lifetime Fitness Center.
February 20, 2008