By Barney Blakeney
I attended the 102th Annual NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet Sept. 21. A friend made it possible. The tickets were $150 bucks. That’s another story. The house was packed – for those who could afford it, the event was well worth the price of the ticket. I left having learned a couple of things; California Sen. Kamala Harris likely would make a good president and that in terms of freedom, justice and equality for all, our society has a long, long, long, long way to go!
I initially thought of using ‘Turning the Ship’ as the theme for this column. I thought the analogy about how long it takes to turn a big ship in the opposite direction might be appropriate. Then I found out it doesn’t take long at all to turn big ships – about three minutes to turn an aircraft carrier. The Freedom Fund Banquet reiterated for me how long it may take to turn our society around.
Thankfully, a lot of people are working every day to make that happen. As might be expected, the banquet featured a lot of recognition. Among this year’s honorees were: Rev. Lawrence Bratton; Mary Cheatham; Jerome Clemons; Rev. Joseph Darby; Dorothy Jenkins; Jonetta Gregory; Carolyn Hunter-Heyward; Jerome Taylor and special recognition for Curtis Holmes. A lot of folks are doing some really great things to move our community progressively forward.
I was particularly impressed by Marcus Jackson, West Ashley High School’s 2019 Valedictorian who boasts a weighted 5.283 GPA, a 12-year perfect attendance record and plans to attend the University of South Carolina to major in History and obtain a Master of Arts in Teaching. Jackson is among those who will take us to a brighter future. But ironically, he is the first African American student to be West Ashley’s valedictorian. The school is nearly 20 years old!
The nights’ entertainment featured a lip-sync performance of Dr. Martin L. King Jr.’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech by Stephon Ferguson. The performance was so realistic I at first thought Ferguson was speaking live about contemporary situations imitating King’s voice. It took me a few minutes to realize he was performing King’s famous speech. I was stunned by how much had not changed since King delivered the speech in 1963.
At one table sat educators James Campbell and Luther Seabrook. Both native sons, Campbell born 1925 is a civil rights activist, worked as a teacher in Baltimore, Maryland; New York, New York; and Tanzania and later became an administrator with the New York City public school system. Seabrook also a former educator/administrator in New York City served as Senior Education Assistant for Curriculum and Instruction for the S.C. Dept. of Education and Area Superintendent of St. Paul Constituent School in Charleston. Both still are teaching, mentoring and preparing others for progressive roles in the future of our society.
At another table was Deacon Shirley Lee of Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, third Black female ordained as a deacon – all at Charity Missionary Baptist Church – in the Metropolitan Charleston area. And on stage was Brenda Cunningham Murphy, first female president of the South Carolina Conference of NAACP Branches.
Despite all the progressive inspiration represented at the banquet I still thought of a recent op-ed piece I read penned by National Urban League President Marc Morial who noted the purchasing power of the national federal minimum wage has declined by 30 percent since 1968 and that a minimum wage earner has to work 103 hours, almost three weeks full time, to afford the rent for a two bedroom apartment. Income inequality has returned to a level last seen in the days before the Great Recession, he said.
In her keynote address, Harris said even in these times of unprecedented progress, disparities remain glaring. She said, “The great Coretta Scott King reminded us that the fight for justice, the fight for freedom, the fight for equality, is a fight that must be fought and won with each generation. She famously told us that it is the very nature of these fights, that whatever gains we make will not be permanent.”
Harris noted, “… what we know even today is that if a black child has a black teacher before the end of third grade, they are 13 percent more likely to go to college. If a black child has had two black teachers before the end of third grade, there are 32 percent more likely to go to college. So needless to say, those visionaries knew that what we are still trying to do today is convince people that there are few things more powerful than a rich supply of Black, bright, energetic teachers who are in our babies lives and showing them their potential.”
Continuing she added, “…we need soldiers in every phase, layer and trench of the movement for social justice. We must always demand change from those with power. But we can’t stop there. That we must stand up to lead ourselves and do the hard, yes, long and frustrating work of driving change from the inside as well.”
About our system of legal justice she said, “If you truly want public safety, then invest in healthy communities, invest in the education of the community, invest in the ability of families to have affordable housing, invest in the entrepreneurs and the talent that exists in those communities … to expect and have a nation expect that law enforcement is the answer to safe communities is to be ignorant of the true price that communities are paying for the generational neglect by a government that has not recognized the systemic racism that has created barriers to people having the opportunities they deserve, and the ability to achieve the capacity that they possess.”
Harris was talking about turning the ship. Like turning a big ship, turning our society in a new direction is a formidable task. But as I learned, it’s not as difficult as we may think. Breaking bread with so many, young and old, at the banquet I realized we have the talent and the will. We just have to do the work.