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The 1964 Civil Rights Act & UMES

  • Wednesday, July 2, 2014

    Lewis, Burks and King: Civil Rights activists with UMES ties

    PRINCESS ANNE, MD. - (July 2, 2014) - Today marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.

    Arguably the most important federal law of the 20th century, it awakened the nation that all men were not being treated equally, assertions in the Declaration of Independence notwithstanding. 

    The civil rights movement touched every corner of America, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore was no exception.

    Maryland State College, as the institution was known when the movement blossomed, counts Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s campus visit to deliver the 1959 commencement speech among its most celebrated moments.

    Alumni who graduated that spring recall hearing an inspirational message delivered to a packed house; many guests were unable to get a seat in the old Kiah gymnasium to hear King speak in person.

    A year later, Maryland State hired Mary Fair Burks, a friend of King's and a respected civil rights pioneer in her own right. Burks was a co-founder of the Women's Political Council of Montgomery, Ala., a grass-roots group that organized bus boycotts during the mid-1950s that accidentally made Rosa Parks a civil rights icon.

    Burks' high profile as an activist in Alabama's state capital eventually forced her to resign in the spring of 1960 as a professor at Alabama State College. That fall, she joined the faculty of Maryland State, where she taught English until retiring in 1986.

    Young people with Maryland State ties were among the participants in the August 1963 March on Washington who heard King deliver his "I have a dream" speech. In the crowd of nearly 250,000 that day were Schelley Kiah, the 15-year-old daughter of a Maryland State professor and granddaughter of the college's fifth president, and David Johnson, a (current) member of UMES' faculty. 

    Maryland State students during the turbulent '60s were keenly aware of social unrest roiling the country, and some even had a hand in bringing about change.

    Curtis Gentry, who went on to play professional football, Addison Cash, Warren Morgan and John Wilson organized sit-ins and protests in Princess Anne to draw attention to loopholes in the state's public accommodations law. Their activism in February 1964 attracted the attention of Gov. J. Millard Tawes and state lawmakers, who took steps to eliminate state-sanctioned segregation policy that governed the conduct of commerce.

    Wilson, a strident protest organizer, left college before graduating to join national civil rights activists who took aim at discriminatory practices and voters' rights as core issues.

    Wilson eventually found his way to Washington, where he transformed into a politician who led the nation's capital to embrace home rule. He served on Washington's City Council and posthumously was honored by colleagues who named the municipal government office building after him.

    Among the men Wilson met during his years as a civil rights protester was John R. Lewis, who also gravitated into elected politics.

    Lewis, an admirer of King, was elected in 1986 to the House of Representatives from Georgia and is known today as “the conscience of the U.S. Congress.”

    He gave the spring 2014 graduation-day address at UMES joining King, his mentor and friend, in a select group of commencement speakers who also were civil rights leaders, including Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson.  Lewis' message on May: “Be bold. Be courageous.”