NAACP president, civil rights activist, administrator
Rupert Richardson led a life of public service, most notably as a longtime employee of the state of Louisiana, a tireless advocate of health care, and the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The eldest daughter of Albert S. and Mary Samuels Richardson, she was born on January 14, 1930, in Navasota, Texas, but moved as an infant to Lake Charles, Louisiana. After excelling in Lake Charles' public schools, she attended Southern University, a black-majority institution in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Upon receiving a bachelor of science degree from Southern in 1952, she married and started a family, eventually raising eight children. She then returned to school, earning master's degrees in counseling and psychology from McNeese State University in Lake Charles in 1962. Her first major job following the completion of her studies was with the Louisiana Department of Labor, where she began work as a counselor in 1965. She would remain in state government service for almost thirty years. In 1974 she moved from the Department of Labor to the Department of Health and Hospitals, where she stayed for twenty years, rising to become deputy assistant secretary and gaining widespread recognition for her expertise in health care planning. Working closely with department head Bobby Jindal, who later became state governor, Richardson focused on expanding access to mental health and substance abuse services. In 1992 she accepted a concurrent appointment as deputy assistant secretary of state in Louisiana's Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse. Two years later she left state government to form her own health care consulting firm, Rupert Richardson and Associates, though she would continue her work with many state advisory boards—including the Louisiana Gaming Control Board, Louisiana Commission on Human Rights, Louisiana Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, and the Advisory Committee to the Louisiana State University's School of Social Welfare—until her death.
As remarkable as Richardson's career in state government was, it represented only a fraction of her public service. Equally significant was her volunteer work for the NAACP, the largest and most prominent civil rights organization in the country. Richardson's ties to the NAACP began in the 1940s, when, as a teenager in Lake Charles, she worked on campaigns for a federal antilynching law and for an end to segregation. Her rise through the ranks of the NAACP's Louisiana conference was as dramatic as her rise through state government, and she would eventually serve an unprecedented sixteen consecutive years as Louisiana conference president. It was at the national level, however, that Richardson proved most useful to the NAACP. First appointed to the national board in 1981, she would remain on it until her death. It would be one of the longest board tenures in the organization's history. Outspoken and unafraid of controversy, she was a powerful force at meetings and soon acquired the affectionate nickname of "Grand Dame." National vice president from 1984 to 1991, she took office as president in 1992.
As president, Richardson worked to broaden the NAACP's mandate to include issues like economic inequalities, health care inequalities, and environmental racism (the practice of locating toxic waste dumps and other environmental hazards in minority neighborhoods). Her tenure was not problem-free. The most serious issue was a scandal that erupted around the organization's executive director, Benjamin Chavis (later known as Chavis Muhammad). In 1995 Chavis was forced to resign after using organization funds to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit. The scandal, which damaged the NAACP's ability to raise funds and expand its membership, also revealed serious weaknesses in its organizational structure. In response, Richardson pursued innovative partnerships, including one with the Harvard Business School, in an effort to reorganize and revitalize the organization. While not all of these initiatives were successful, Richardson's determination to address the organization's problems one by one did a great deal to restore morale and public confidence. In gratitude, the national board immediately named her president emerita when she stepped down at the end of 1995.
In 1999 Richardson's work with the NAACP entered a new phase when she successfully pushed for the creation of a national Health Committee, which she chaired until her death. While the committee worked on many issues, its primary focus under Richardson was reducing the incidence of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in minority communities. In 2007 African Americans represented thirteen percent of the U.S. population, but they represented more than half of all new HIV/AIDS cases. To reduce this disparity, Richardson's committee instituted a broad range of educational and public-policy initiatives.
Despite her work at the highest levels of public service, Richardson never lost her enthusiasm for local, grassroots initiatives, including the one devoted to the so-called "Jena 6." In 2006 six African-American high school students in rural Jena, Louisiana, were arrested for allegedly assaulting a white classmate, a response many residents felt was excessive and discriminatory. When, on September 20, 2007, ten to twenty thousand people marched in Jena to protest the situation, the seventy-seven-year-old Richardson was marching proudly among them. As Dennis Hayes, interim president and CEO of the NAACP, said at her funeral in a passage quoted by Warren Arceneaux of the Lake Charles American Press: "Even in the past year, when she was marching with us in Jena, you would feel stronger and wiser just being in her presence."
At a Glance …
Born Rupert Florence Richardson on January 14, 1930, in Navasota, TX; died on January 24, 2008, in Baton Rouge, LA; daughter of Albert S. and Mary Samuels Richardson; divorced; former husband, James A. Clemons Jr.; eight children (one deceased). Religion: Baptist. Education: Southern University, BS, 1952; McNeese State University, MS, counseling and psychology, 1962.
Career: Louisiana Department of Labor, Baton Rouge, LA, counselor, 1965-74; Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, Baton Rouge, deputy assistant secretary, 1974-94; Louisiana Office of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, Baton Rouge, deputy assistant secretary of state, 1992-94; Rupert Richardson and Associates, president and chief executive officer, 1994-2008.
Selected memberships: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), board member, 1981-2008, vice president, 1984-91, president, 1992-95, president emerita, 1996-2008; NAACP Health Committee, chair, 1999-2008; Louisiana Gaming Control Board; Louisiana Commission on Human Rights; Louisiana Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights; Louisiana State University School of Social Welfare, Advisory Committee.
Selected awards: Southern University, Outstanding Alumna, 1984; Colorado Technical University, honorary doctorate, 1996; designation of January 31, 2008, as Rupert F. Richardson Day in the State of Louisiana (posthumous), 2008.
Rupert Richardson died unexpectedly at her home in Baton Rouge on January 24, 2008. Tributes immediately arrived from across the nation. At the request of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, who called Richardson "a powerful advocate for justice, equality, and opportunity" during a January 31 speech on the front of the U.S. Senate, the governing body observed a moment of silence in her memory. Furthermore, Louisiana Governor Jindal, Richardson's former colleague and supervisor at the Department of Health and Hospitals, declared January 31, 2008, to be Rupert F. Richardson Day throughout the state. Perhaps the single most poignant tribute, however, was a statement one of her sons made to the Baton Rouge Advocate's Koran Addo and Michelle Millhollon: "Richardson … never had trouble balancing her public life and her family life, said her son James Clemons III. ‘She saw her civic duties and parental duties as part of one cause,’ he said. ‘She always said, "They are two branches of the same tree." I'll always remember that.’"
Advocate (Baton Rouge, LA), February 1, 2008.
American Press (Lake Charles, LA), February 2, 2008.
New York Times, January 27, 2008.
"Governor Jindal Declares January 31, 2008 Rupert F. Richardson Day," State of Louisiana: Office of the Governor, http://gov.louisiana.gov/index.cfm?md=newsroom&tmp=detail&catID=2&articleID=47&navID=3 (accessed February 22, 2008).
"NAACP Mourns Passing of Rupert Richardson Past President and National Board Member," The NAACP Is Today,http://www.naacp.org/news/press/2008-01-25/index.htm (accessed February 22, 2008).
—R. Anthony Kugler
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