Sunday, January 13, 2008

Gwendolyn Britt, civil rights advocate, passes

We received sad the news today about the passing of a local civil rights advocate: Maryland State Senator Gwendolyn Britt died yesterday after suffering a heart attack. She was 66.

State and local advocates such as Ms. Britt are unsung heros, working not for the limelight but for what they know is right. Senator Britt was set to introduce legislation calling for Maryland to recognize Civil Marriages. From the Baltimore Sun:
Britt's political career began as a student activist at Howard University. In June 1960, Britt, then known as Gwendolyn Greene, walked into Montgomery County's then-segregated Glen Echo Park with several students and tried to ride the merry-go-round.

According to a Washington Post story about the confrontation, which sparked five days of protests, Britt was arrested for trespassing, spat upon and harassed by counter-picketers.

Britt knew the color line, she told the Post in 2004. At Hecht's, she could try on clothes but avoided Woodward & Lothrop because she could not.

Britt ended up leaving Howard to join the Freedom Riders, who were challenging Jim Crow laws in the South. The following year she spent 40 days in a Mississippi jail for sitting in a whites-only train station.
I taught middle school in Maryland until about 3 years ago, and I was constantly amazed that the students had no idea how recently institutionalized discrimination was the norm, even here in Maryland. We read a wonderful book called "In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson," (which I highly recommend -- even though it's no longer used because it doesn't particularly help students score better on the state-mandated No Child Left Behind tests ....) Trying to connect the story to their lives, I told my students that my mother couldn't have lunch with her best friend in the early fifties, because her friend was black. They were surprised. They had no connection to this time in our country's history.

Thank you and god bless you, Gwendolyn Britt. We will never forget the strength you displayed in the face of ignorance and discrimination.

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