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Md. senator tirelessly fought for civil rights

The Baltimore Sun

Prince George's County senator and civil rights activist Gwendolyn T. Britt died early yesterday, shortly after being taken to Doctor's Community Hospital in Lanham, according to a spokeswoman for Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. She was 66.

She had not been feeling well and was absent from the General Assembly's session Friday, the spokeswoman said. The cause of death was not available.

The five-year Democratic state senator was expected to introduce legislation this year that would legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland - and by agreeing to do so, she had become a "hero" to that community, wrote Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland.

"Thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Marylanders and their families only knew Senator Britt by name, and yet this name truly meant everything to them," he wrote.

When the group asked her to be the lead sponsor on the bill, Mr. Furmansky wrote that "she did not hesitate or ask to think it over first. Her answer was definite, her pride apparent, her convictions solid."

Mrs. Britt's political career began as a student activist at Howard University. In June 1960, 18-year-old Gwendolyn Greene walked into Montgomery County's segregated Glen Echo Park with several students and tried to climb onto a horse on the merry-go-round.

According to a Washington Post story about the confrontation, which sparked five days of protests, she and members of the D.C. Nonviolent Action Group were arrested for trespassing, spat upon and harassed by counter-demonstrators.

Growing up in Northeast Washington, Mrs. Britt knew the color line, she told the Post in 2004. At Hecht's, she could try on clothes, but she couldn't go into Woodward & Lothrop. Every summer, white children would be bused to the gleaming pool at Glen Echo, while black children were transported to separate and very unequal facilities in Washington.

Mrs. Britt left Howard to join the Freedom Riders, who were challenging Jim Crow laws in the South. In 1961, she spent 40 days in a Mississippi jail for sitting in a whites-only train station.

"She would never say, 'Look what I've accomplished,'" said Del. Victor R. Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat, whose district overlaps Mrs. Britt's. "She'd talk about the civil rights movement if you brought it up, but she was one of those people who spoke soft but carried a big stick."

Terry Speigner, chairman of the Prince George's County Democratic Central Committee, said that Mrs. Britt's experiences during the civil rights movement instilled in her "a quiet confidence" when it came to politics.

"A couple of months ago, I remember talking to her about the Prince George's County hospital system, what's happening and what we needed to accomplish," Mr. Speigner said. "She made a comparison to what she had gone through in the civil rights movement, and said, 'This is a cakewalk.' She had had bigger battles in her life."

Mrs. Britt was re-elected chairwoman of the Prince George's County's Senate delegation last week, a job that required her to hold together a group of "colorful characters," said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden.

"Gwen was definitely coming into her own" as a senator, the Baltimore Democrat said. The members of her delegation "had a lot of respect and confidence in her leadership."

Last year, Mrs. Britt helped shepherd a bill through the General Assembly that restored voting rights to ex-offenders, telling The Sun in February that "a person's right to vote is his or her badge of citizenship, and without it all other rights are in jeopardy."

"She had a broader vision of what civil rights meant," said Carl O. Snowden, director of civil rights for Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, adding that he did not know her well but admired her work from afar. "She saw other groups that had historically been locked out of the system - women, Latinos, gays - and she felt all those left out had to have a place at the table. She will be sorely missed."

Gov. Martin O'Malley said in a statement that Mrs. Britt "was smart, hard-working, dedicated and honest. ... I will always remember the kindness she showed to me personally."

Mrs. Britt graduated from Washington's McKinley High School in 1959. After leaving Howard University to join the Freedom Riders, she did complete her bachelor's degree - in political science from Bowie State University - but not until 2004, more than 40 years later.

Two years before graduation, she retired as a human resources and personnel manager at Giant Food Inc., according to her online state biography.

Funeral arrangements were not available yesterday.

She is survived by her husband, Travis Britt, and two children.

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