By Maria Saporta
Give Atlanta a year or two and James Weldon Johnson will become part of the city’s vocabulary of legends.
Johnson, who lived from 1871 to 1939, was one of the pivotal black leaders in American history. He was an author, songwriter, a poet, a Civil Rights leader, a journalist, an teacher and a diplomat.
Although he was born in Jacksonville, Fla., Johnson attended Atlanta University. He later became executive director of the NAACP and then became a professor of creative writing at New York University, becoming its first African American faculty member.
Now Johnson’s is solidly based in Atlanta at Emory University, home of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies.
The significance of the institute hit home Wednesday evening at the Johnson Awards Ceremony held at the Carter Center — the first year that Atlanta has hosted the awards ceremony.
Receiving awards this year was an all-star cast of national leaders.
Myrlie Beasley Evers-Williams received one of the Johnson medals for her lifetime dedication to civil rights, serving as chairwoman of the NAACP from 1995 to 1998. She was widowed at an early age when her husband, Medgar Evers, was assassinated in Mississippi by a white supremacist.
“I knew change would come, but I had no idea that I would be fortunate to live long enough to see the change take place,” Evers-Williams said. “For whatever time I have left, I will continue to be one of those persons who will make a positive change.”
The second Johnson medal was awarded to Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin for her leadership as a public servant and for securing the collection of Martin Luther King Jr. papers for Morehouse College and Atlanta as a whole.
Franklin said she was sharing her honor with the “many men and women who have come before me in public service.” She then mentioned several former mayors — Maynard Jackson, Ivan Allen Jr. and William Hartsfield — for forming “the foundation that makes our city great.”
Retired Coca-Cola CEO Neville Isdell also received a medal for his leadership and understanding of the global community and human rights.
Isdell described how he and his family were non-sectarians who lived in a “very sectarian Northern Ireland.”
When he was 10 years old, the family moved to South Africa where he saw the mistreatment of blacks by those in power, images that haunt him to this day.
Isdell commended Emory President Jim Wagner and Rudolph Byrd, founding director of the James Weldon Institute, for “creating something that I think is going to have tremendous meaning for the city, the country and the world…”
U.S. Rep. John Lewis also received a Johnson medal. He was the one honoree who was not present because he was in Washington, D.C. working on the healthcare bill.
The next award went to Gloria Steinem, a legendary journalist, author and feminist who founded Ms. magazine in 1972.
Steinem said that if Johnson were alive today, he would have been described as being “platform agnostic,” meaning that he used multiple channels to communicate his beliefs to others.
Before starting Ms., Steinem said she studied Johnson’s efforts to start the Daily American, the first African-American daily newspaper ever published in the United States. Steinem said Johnson’s goal with the newspaper was to “make the invisible, visible.” The newspaper only lasted eight months, but that didn’t stop Johnson from finding other avenues to “make the invisible, visible.”
“I don’t know how may years I have left. I’m counting on at least 25,” said Steinem, saying that would make her 100 years old. And then she pledged that for the rest of her life, she would continue Johnson’s efforts to make the invisible, visible.
The last medal award winner was Alice Walker, an author whose most famous work is “The Color Purple.”
The Negro anthem — “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — was written by James Weldon Johnson, and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson.
“I grew up nourished by ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’” Walker said. “So I sit here tonight thinking of my father,” who she said shared Johnson’s ideals.
Although her father had only had a fifth grade education and her mother a fourth grade education, her parents helped build a school so their eight children could get an education. Immediately, it was burnt to the ground, so her parents went out and rebuilt the school.
Somehow they knew that their children would achieve the success that Walker has enjoyed, partly because they believed in the uplifting message of Johnson’s song.
“Nobody can stop a song. Nobody can stop music. We need songs like that now,” Walker said, adding that these are frightening times for our planet. “We need the music to lead us.”
She then recounted a recent visit to the White House with President Barack Obama when someone mentioned how the structure had been built by slaves.
“They thought it was a negative, but I said they built it for him (Obama),” Walker said.
It was a pretty incredible evening to have such legendary leaders in Atlanta being honored for their contributions to improve society.
Surprisingly, the event was not that well attended given the human power that was gathered in one place. Perhaps it’s because Atlantans have not yet discovered Johnson. Or perhaps it’s because there’s a lack of awareness that the Johnson Institute and its awards ceremony is now in Atlanta.
But these awards could quickly become one of Atlanta’s greatest annual events, reinforcing the city’s role as a beacon for civil and human rights.
For inspiration, here is the first verse of Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ‘till victory is won.