The University of Mary Washington officially announced the graduation speakers on Dec. 6 for this year’s graduate and undergraduate commencement addresses, choosing speakers that continue UMW’s active role in commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides.
The two congressmen, John Lewis of Georgia and Bob Filner of California, both participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides and have been Civil Rights activists throughout their careers and personal lives.
“It’s a thrill, the fact that the university has one Freedom Rider speaking Friday night and another on Saturday. That’s a coup,” said class of 1990 alumnus Richard Cooper, who has taken an active interest in helping to secure this year’s graduation speakers.
While President Rick Hurley makes the final decision on who will address the graduates, he receives input from other members of the university community, including alumni, according to Chief of Staff Martin Wilder.
“This year [the search] really started early on,” Wilder said. “We were going to be celebrating and commemorating the Freedom Rides.”
By November 2010, the university had already found Lewis and was searching for a speaker to address the graduate students.
“Lo and behold, we discovered there was a second congressman, [Filner,] who was himself a Freedom Rider,” Wilder said. “The stars lined up and he said yes.”
Lewis, who will speak to the undergraduates on May 7, was born into a family of sharecroppers in 1940 and organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn., according to his biography on the UMW website.
He went on to risk his life in the Freedom Rides and during the mid-1960s was named head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
According to Associate Vice President for University Relations and Director of Communications George Farrar, Cooper was instrumental in bringing Lewis in to speak at UMW.
Cooper worked as James Farmer’s student aide and has championed the James Farmer stamp campaign.
His involvement with the school, especially in helping to commemorate great Civil Rights leaders, led him to speak with Hurley in July 2010 about bringing in Lewis to speak at commencement. in having him as a speaker. In the following months they discussed scheduling and Cooper found that Lewis’ staff was impressed by all the work UMW was doing to celebrate the Freedom Rides’ 50th anniversary.
Cooper described Lewis as one of the, “Mount Rushmore faces of the Civil Rights movement,” and expressed his admiration for the way Lewis has continued to serve as a leader throughout his life.
“Most people don’t necessarily remember their commencement speakers,” Cooper said, “[But Lewis] is one of the giants of the Civil Rights Movement. You can say, ‘He spoke to me.’”
In February 2011, he attended a Freedom Rides commemoration held by a local, non-UMW group in Fredericksburg. While he was in the area, he stopped by the campus, Wilder said. The university approached him to see if he would be interested in speaking at the graduate commencement and Filner agreed.
According to Wilder, graduation speakers are not paid for their commencement addresses. On occasion they are compensated for their travel expenses, but Lewis’ and Filner’s addresses to the student bodies will come at no cost to the university.