Late Activist Acie Byrd Lauded at Memorial

Margaret Summers | 5/24/2014, 1:17 a.m.
Roughly 450 people gathered Friday at the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northeast to celebrate the life of ...
The Rev. Graylan Hagler, senior pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northeast D.C., speaks at the church during the memorial service for Acie L. Byrd on May 23. At right is D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. Photo by Roy Lewis

A prince of a man. A thoroughgoing progressive. A revolutionary. Speaker after speaker used these and other accolades to describe the late D.C. activist Acie L. Byrd Jr.

Roughly 450 people gathered Friday at the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northeast to mourn Byrd's death and celebrate his life. Byrd, 77, died May 13 after a long battle with cancer.

"Acie joined my first campaign for Congress, and helped me get elected in the first place," said D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Originally from Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, Byrd became a student leader at the University of Maryland and Howard University. Prior to college, Byrd served three tours of duty in the U.S. Navy. While serving in the Pacific, Byrd was one of the quarter-million enlisted personnel exposed to radiation from U.S. nuclear testing, suffering permanent nerve damage.

"Acie took that experience and ran with it," Norton said. "An example and a leader, he co-founded the International Alliance of Atomic Veterans, and joined the National Association of Atomic Veterans. His activism contributed to [the advent of] the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty."

Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1996, the treaty bans all nuclear testing. It has not been ratified by every country.

Byrd formed the Task Force on Radiation and Human Rights, and worked as the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign field coordinator. He chaired D.C.'s Nuclear Weapons Freeze Committee under Mayor Marion Barry, and promoted a nuclear test referendum approved by D.C. voters in 1985.

"Where are the Acie Byrds of today?" Norton said. "Acie's lasting legacy is the selfless universality of his brand of activism. Let’s try to remember him by becoming 'Acie Byrd Progressive Activists.'"

Matt Cary, director of the D.C. Office of Veterans Affairs, read a tribute and condolence message to Byrd's family from Mayor Vincent Gray. “May you find strength in the love of family and friends,” it said in part.

Cary said he and Byrd participated in then-Sen. John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign and years later worked on the first Obama-Biden campaign by organizing Veterans and Military Families for Progress. Carey and Byrd produced special programs on WPFW-FM every Memorial Day and Veterans Day which focused on veterans' issues. Byrd helped found the radio station and participated in its programs as a political commentator.

Carey said Byrd was committed to social change.

"One of his last [comments] was, 'It's not how long you are on this Earth, but what you do while you're here,'" he said at the service.

Sonia Metzer, a longtime personal friend of Byrd's, noted that his political work was generally conducted behind the scenes.

"He understood that not everyone has to lead from the front," she said. "He worked for the rights of immigrants and trade unionists, for D.C. statehood, for veterans' rights, and against the denigration of women."

Metzer said whenever anyone asked Byrd how he felt, he always answered, "reasonably well," explaining that he would only be reasonably well "as long as African-Americans aren't free."

Speakers remembered Byrd as a tireless advocate for D.C. statehood, and a founder of Stand Up for Democracy in D.C.

"He never hesitated to support statehood," said Anise Jenkins, the organization's executive director.

Byrd, along with statehood advocates Josephine Butler and Julius Hobson Jr., worked on the 1982 D.C. statehood referendum.

Byrd was also lauded for his work to end the death penalty in D.C., create a national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and end apartheid and minority rule in South Africa.

D.C. attorney Alan Gregory said his friendship with Byrd began when Gregory attended the University of Maryland.

"Acie mentored thousands of students. His spirit will live on through their legacy," Gregory said.

Several speakers said they became activists under Byrd's guidance.

"He took this then-23-year-old under his wings and allowed her to soar," said veteran Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile. "He has been involved in so many movements and done so much for D.C. and the nation. His work speaks for itself."

Byrd's family requested that his supporters send contributions in his memory to WPFW-FM.