By Maria Saporta
For me, the Power to Inspire gala – the benefit for the Center for Civil and Human Rights – inspired a sense of gratitude for what we have in our town.
The Center will celebrate its fourth anniversary next month, and it’s hard to imagine an Atlanta without this touchpoint for our community. It combines in one place our unique place in the history of civil and human rights.
Atlanta was a mecca for the civil rights movement – with the presence of Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Andrew Young, John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, Benjamin Mays, William Holmes Borders, Jesse Hill, Herman Russell, Christine King Farris, Lonnie King among dozens of others.
And our human rights history has been anchored by such leaders as former President Jimmy Carter, Rosalynn Carter, Andrew Young, Sam Nunn, Ted Turner, among so many others.
The Center has become a magnet for our better selves – for people who aspire to have a society free of hate, discrimination, poverty, war and injustice.
The Power to Inspire gala on May 17 (the first one I have been able to attend) exemplified the power of the messages that the Center represents.
The honorees this year included George Wolfe, a playwright and director who curated the civil rights portion of the Center; Bernice King, CEO of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change; and former Vice President Joe Biden.
All three of the honorees, as well as those who introduced them, reminded the 700 people attending the packed ballroom at the Georgia Aquarium, about why these issues are especially significant today.
Wolfe talked of growing up in Frankfurt, Ky., when blacks were not allowed to go to movie theaters. He really wanted to go see 101 Dalmatians, and his “ferocious” grandmother was not able to get him in. But when Martin Luther King came to Frankfurt, she took him out of school so they could march with the civil rights leaders.
“The way to stand up to stupidity is to own all of your power,” Wolfe said. “We are now in the presence of a very large agenda, and that agenda is saving a democracy.”
Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who chairs the Center’s board, awarded Bernice King with one of the Living the Legacy awards.
“Fifty years ago a bullet was supposed to silence a powerful voice,” said Franklin, referring to King’s assassination. “That did not happen. Millions of voices joined the movement. We could not, and we should not, be silent.”
Franklin also recognized the student leaders from Atlanta and Parkland, Fla., who were in attendance. She said the veteran civil rights leaders need to support their cause of seeking an end to gun violence in our society.
“Thank you for providing the space to display the most important words of our time,” King told the leaders of the Center, which has a rotating exhibit of her father’s papers. “My father was a very prolific writer. I have wondered how he did it. God has really gifted us with this. I used to believe he was sent as a prophet to this nation. Now I think he was a prophet to the world.”
King said it is up to us to create a just and humane society – to learn to live together as brother and sister or perish as fools, repeating one of her father’s sayings.
“We will continue to inspire,” King said. “We will continue to be a bridge. We know the choice is no longer between violence and non-violence. The choice is really between non-violence and non-existence.”
The last speaker was Joe Biden, who singled out U.S. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Alabama) and baseball legend Hank Aaron, who were both in attendance.
The Biden spoke of how he had been inspired by the civil rights movement.
Speaking of his eight years as vice president in the Barack Obama administration, Biden said they knew not to be an example of power, but to be the power of an example.
“Barack and I knew we were living history,” said Biden, adding solemnly that much of the progress they had made during those eight years has been undone by the current administration.
“The legacy has to be lived and fought for and expanded every single day,” said Biden, explaining that both he and Obama refrained from talking about President Donald Trump early in his administration.
“I could not remain silent after Charlottesville,” Biden said, referring to the protests last August by white supremacists who carried torches in the light of day and counter protests. “We are in a battle for the soul of America. What leaders say matters. Silence is complicity.”
Without mentioning Trump by name, Biden then chastised the “leadership of this country,” who said at the time: “There are good people on both sides.”
“For God’s sake, our children are listening,” Biden said. “To describe immigrants as animals – it sends a terrible message around the world about who we are… Good people speak up. Good people speak out.”
Then he recounted how when people would say “Keep the faith,” his grandmother would tell him: “No Joey, spread the faith.”
Brian Tolleson, the interim CEO of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, said in an interview Monday that the Center is “really hitting its stride.”
For example, Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields sends every new recruit to tour the Center so they can understand the relationship between policing and civil rights.
It should be required that every top elected official in the state of Georgia must tour the Center to better understand the history of the moves that helped our state stand above others in the South when it came to treating people with respect.
In fact, it would be great for everyone in metro Atlanta and the entire state to visit the Center to better appreciate the historic role we have played in making the world a better place.
“The Center is always looking for what’s next,” Tolleson said. “The Center knows that in order to succeed and continue having consistent and meaningful impact, we have to grow.”
Having the Center in Atlanta keeps us grounded to our roots and to our DNA. It can serve as a constant that we can be a city on a hill – one that stands for dignity, justice, equality and prosperity for all. We should always embrace that aspiration.