Individual 2019

Career Achievement Award: Cicely Tyson

With a critically acclaimed career that spans over 70 years in American broadcast television, Cicely Tyson has been a foundational figure in the advancement of meaningful programming and social change through her performances, transforming how African Americans are considered on and off-screen. The winner of multiple industry and craft guild awards and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Harlem, New York native is a respected, beloved national treasure and one of few actresses of her generation who continues to take on key roles in celebrated productions.

Whether playing Ophelia Harkness in How to Get Away with Murder, Miss Jane Pittman, Coretta Scott King, Harriet Tubman, or Bitna in 1977’s Roots, Tyson consistently infuses her characters with emotion, courage, humor, insight, determination, and sensitivity.

Her work helped shape American broadcast television in its Golden Age. From 1951-1970, she appeared in 23 programs and series including Naked City, I Spy, Mission Impossible, and Gunsmoke. Through her performances the “small screen” became a site of reckoning and recognition of African American culture, interior life, and communal strength. Her characters showed television audiences what freedom dreams look like for black women and men, what the ordinary and the everyday life feels like, and what the elegance, nobility, and grace of black people are like.

Cicely Tyson’s uncompromising commitment to using her craft to address the big issues of her time—gender equality, racial and social justice, equity and inclusion—places her in rare company. And she did so when speaking up and speaking out invited stigma, isolation, and retribution. She was a seminal figure of her time, and ahead of her time.

Think, for instance, of her influential work in the early part of her career on East Side/West Side (1962) or her incredible roles from the 1970s through the end of the century with commanding performances about extraordinary women like Marva Collins in The Marva Collins Story (1981). The breadth of her foundational performances also includes The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974), King (1978), The Women of Brewster Place (1989), Always Outnumbered (1998), A Lesson Before Dying (1999), Jewel (2002), The Rosa Parks Story (2002), The Trip to Bountiful (2014), House of Cards (2016), Madame Secretary (2019), and Cherish the Day (2020).

With her award-winning performances Tyson has taught us to champion a world of possibility for social justice, creativity, vitality, and joy. Through her career she has demonstrated the importance of imagining human freedom, the power of struggle, the grace of sacrifice, and the importance of witnessing in a nation desperate to reckon with itself. Her powerful command of her craft and her life-long dedication to making work that entertains and challenges helps us find our ethical and moral bearings, inviting us to ponder the qualities that make for an ethical and moral life.

Cicely Tyson is a beacon lighting the path, fine-tuning our capacities to envision and see each other. The empathy in her characters, their determination and commitment, their joys and sorrows, have shown us how to regard each other from a place of compassion and respect. Cicely Tyson, we see you, we salute you, we thank you, and we celebrate your extraordinary contributions to American media and television.

The Peabody Awards Board of Jurors is proud to present Cicely Tyson with the Peabody Career Achievement Award.