By Maria Saporta
The Center for Civil and Human Rights 2017 Power to Inspire Tribute dinner on May 18 provided nourishment for the soul.
And that’s just what event planners intended.
“We wanted to articulate the spirit of human and civil rights, and honor those who lift that spirit up – those who do the heavy lifting,” said Ingrid Saunders Jones, a retired executive from the Coca-Cola Co., who helped put together the evening with the Center’s Deborah Richardson. “They protect the notion of human rights and civil rights in the nation.”
The third annual Power to Inspire dinner honored what the Center call as “society’s change agents” – people who enhance our views on equality and justice in our city, nation and world.
Helen Smith Price, who is the current president of the Coca-Cola Foundation, called the honorees “non-traditional” change agents who inspire us.
Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who is the board chair of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, gave the first award to Phil Freelon, the architect who designed not only Atlanta’s iconic institution but also the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African-American History.
“Yes, he’s a great architect; and yes, he has great vision,” Franklin said. “But his designs open minds and hearts. He stretched our imagination with poetry and music. He really earned the job…. Phil knew how he wanted our visitors to feel.”
Freelon then made his way carefully to the stage walking with a cane. Last year, Freelon disclosed he was suffering from ALS, and he has started the Freelon ALS Fund in an attempt to “design a world without ALS.” His fund has been raising money, largely in his home state of North Carolina, and is making contributions to the Duke ALS Clinic.
But Freelon did not mention his health challenges at the dinner. Instead, he talked about the robust process he went through to be selected to design the Center for Civil and Human working in a “highly collaborative environment” with the board and the founding director Doug Shipman.
“I know there were times during the last economic recession when the future of the Center was in doubt,” Freelon said, adding he wanted the building and the landscape to contribute to the story telling. Ultimately we envisioned the building as a place that is welcoming and engaging.”
The next person to be honored was Henry Louis Gates Jr., a journalist, filmmaker and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University.
Jones remembered meeting Gates when he was seeking funding for his PBS Mini-series – African-American Lives – to use science as a way to trace the origins of African-Americans – a modern day version of Roots. Coca-Cola became the series’ first corporate sponsor.
“I owe you so much Ingrid Saunders Jones,” Gates said. “You gave me a second career. You gave me a career as documentary filmmaker.”
Attorney Richard H. Deane Jr., Atlanta managing partner of Jones Day, introduced Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The LDF, as it is often called, was instrumental in the historic Brown vs. Board of Education, and Deane said the organization “is just as relevant today as it was during (the days of) Brown vs. Board of Education.”
Ifill, the first cousin of the late journalist Gwen Ifill, reinforced the relevancy by saying the LDF had been involved in the transgender bathroom case in North Carolina.
She added that the need for justice and equality was especially important during today’s political climate.
“It’s a crisis; it’s a potential crisis of democracy,” she said, speaking directly to the diverse dinner guests at the Georgia Aquarium. “We are now in a moment where all the civil rights work is needed for what I call ‘democracy maintenance.’” She said it was up to the “people in this room” to maintain our democracy. “Everyone has to do their part in this moment.”
Philanthropist and media pioneer Ted Turner also was honored, and his son Rhett Turner, accepted the award on his behalf. Turner, who started Turner Broadcasting, also launched his own Turner Foundation, the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the UN Foundation – initiatives aimed at helping save the planet and improve the lives of those around the world.
The last awardee of the evening was Jonathan Greenblatt, national director and CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.
“I’m inspired to be here tonight,” said Greenblatt, who added the ADL was founded in 1913 as a way to prevent the discrimination of Jews, but it soon became involved in the civil rights movement and has served as a voice against oppression of any kind.
“We’ve come a long way since Jim Crow, but the structure of systemic segregation remains in place – especially for people of color,” Greenblatt said.
But the problems of anti-Semitism have not gone away.
ADL audits incidents against Jews in the United States, and in 2016, there was a 30 percent increase of incidents over the previous year. But even more frightening is what ADL has seen so far in 2017.
“We saw nearly as many incidents of anti-Semitism in the first three months of 2017 as we saw in the 12 months of 2016,” Greenblatt said. “It’s like a roller-coaster without end.”
The national leaders who were recognized commented on how special it was to have the event in Atlanta – the birthplace of the civil rights movement and a nexus for the fight for human rights.
That identity for Atlanta has only increased with the opening of the Center for Civil and Human Rights nearly three years ago. And it’s a legacy that continues to grow with each passing day as we continue to work on the difficult issues of our time.
“The Center reinforces the lifting of Atlanta as a center for civil and human rights,” Jones said. “You have to ask yourself what would Atlanta be like without the Center?”