We still have “mountains to climb and rivers to cross” in the struggle for civil rights, Georgia Sen. Nan Grogan Orrock ’65 told a crowd gathered in Monroe Hall in November.
Her speech, the centerpiece of the James L. Farmer Lecture Hall dedication, highlighted the power of “ordinary people” like the late James Farmer to forward the journey toward justice for all. Farmer, who founded the Congress of Racial Equality, taught history at Mary Washington for more than a decade. One of America’s top civil rights leaders, he shared his experiences with thousands of UMW students, his resonant voice filling Monroe 104, the auditorium that now bears his name.
“It is indeed right and appropriate that we recognize James Farmer in this room in which he touched so many students,” said Jeffrey W. McClurken ’94, professor and chair of history and American studies, who was one of those students.
Farmer organized the 1961 Freedom Rides that led to desegregated interstate travel. He had a lead role in the United Council for Civil Rights Leadership and helped coordinate the 1963 March on Washington. Orrock, a tireless civil rights advocate who became the first white member of the black caucus in Atlanta and the first woman elected House majority whip, was a Mary Washington junior when she attended that march. It changed her life. She called James Farmer, whom she knew from the 1960s, “a visionary of the first order.”
Board of Visitors Rector Holly Tace Cuellar ’89 reminisced about her experience in Farmer’s classroom. Captivated by his stories, she’d inch forward to catch every word, she said, until she would find herself sitting at the edge of her seat.
During the ceremony, UMW President Richard V. Hurley presented Orrock with the prestigious James Monroe medal, which the university bestows on those who provide extraordinary service to humanity. He also unveiled the James L. Farmer Lecture Hall plaque.
That afternoon, Farmer’s voice once again rose in the room as a video of one of his lectures played. “It wasn’t just an introduction to the civil rights movement,” said Timothy O’Donnell, professor of communication, of the lessons Farmer taught before his death in 1999. “It was the introduction to the civil rights movement.”
Read more about Nan Grogan Orrock and her lifelong dedication to civil rights in this issue’s cover story.