Happy Birthday

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Happy Birthday, Cicely Tyson, Award-Winning Actress and Humanitarian

December 19, 2009
by Lindsey Chapman
Cicely Tyson is an award-winning actress best known for her roles in movies like “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” “Roots” and “Sounder.” On stage, on screen and in real life, she’s been a devoted supporter of civil rights and an outspoken advocate of other important social issues .

Cicely Tyson's Early Days

Cicely Tyson was born on Dec. 19, 1933, to Caribbean immigrants. She grew up in Harlem and first rose to public prominence as a model. Eventually, her modeling career led her to the acting world.

Tyson said she always knew she wanted to be an actress, but growing up in a religious family, her parents weren’t fond of the idea. In fact, her mother stopped speaking to her for two years after she announced her career aspirations. Relations with her family eventually healed, though; one night after a performance, Tyson found her mother graciously responding to praise from Tyson's fans. “I couldn’t believe it,” Tyson remembered.

Tyson gained major attention with her role in the 1972 film “Sounder.” She received an Academy Award nomination “at a time when most black actors were appearing in so-called ‘blaxploitation’ films,” ABC News reports.

Tyson's Notable Accomplishments

Tyson dedicated herself to accepting only roles that portrayed African American women in a positive light; sometimes her standards prevented her from having steady work, according to PBS. But she has been rewarded for selectivity. Tyson portrayed a 110-year-old former slave in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman”; one of her most well-received roles, it earned her two Emmy awards.

Tyson has received much praise for both her performance-related achievements and her commitment to human rights. She holds several honorary doctorates, 12 Image Awards as Best Actress from the NAACP (a record), a National Council of Negro Women Award and Civil Rights awards from organizations like the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, PUSH and CORE. In 1996, the New Jersey Board of Education voted to change the name of a middle and high school to the Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts. The school primarily serves underprivileged students. Tyson said she considers this one of her most meaningful honors.

The Rest of the Story

Among her many achievements, Cecily Tyson has served on the Kennedy Center Honors Board, worked as a Commissioner of the National Museum of African History and Culture, spoken at a tribute to Nelson Mandela and co-chaired the first and second National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta. She is also a founding member of the Coalition for a Healthy and Active America and a spokesperson for the American Legacy Foundation.

Tyson reserves one month each year to travel to college campuses around the country and speak to students about race, and social issues like teen pregnancy and human rights. During an October 2008 stop at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, Tyson told a largely African-American crowd she felt “guilty” for participating in the Civil Rights movement. “We gained what you have today and this generation has nothing left to fight for. It’s difficult for you to understand there were places we couldn't eat. We couldn’t ride in the front of the bus but you can.” She encouraged the youth to use the achievements of the Civil Rights era to continue making the best of themselves today.

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