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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

‘It was never about a dream’: NAACP president and CEO speaks at Notre Dame Black excellence celebration dinner

On Thursday evening, hundreds of Notre Dame students, staff and faculty weathered the northern Indiana winter to gather in the Morris Inn Smith Ballroom. 

From the other side of the nation, president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Derrick Johnson and other activists traveled to join them. 

Together, they all joined in a celebration of Black excellence as one of the final events of Notre Dame’s annual Walk the Walk week.

Although the goal of the week has been to consider realistic future steps towards diversity and inclusion while reflecting on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., Johnson made a different point during his keynote address. 

To begin, he joked to the audience about the pitfalls of the “preach and sleep” method, saying that he was not a fan of a speech format where he spoke about issues unrelatable to the listeners. Johnson urged the audience to both listen and participate in the dialogue during the event and beyond. 

“From our perspective, as NAACP, we see that our democracy is on a shoestring,” he explained. “Being able to pursue life, liberty and happiness as guaranteed in our Constitution is eroding fast and is eroding because of tribalism — using the current political climate to destroy social norms and expectations.”

And instead of preaching, Johnson started to tell a story. He told the audience about a man named A. Philip Randolph and his work as one of the first leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, organizing one of the first labor unions and campaigning to integrate armed services. Johnson also brought up Medgar Evers and an important woman whose true narrative got lost in American history. 

“She always looked much younger than her age. She was a fierce fighter. She was a secretary for the NAACP in Alabama,” he noted. “When there was an incident, she would be the person to go in and investigate those incidents. Does anyone know who I’m talking about? Rosa Parks.”

Pulling it all together, Johnson detailed the events after Parks’ arrest.

“[E.D. Nixon] called three people.” The first two were pastors, who wholeheartedly agreed to participate in whatever Nixon was organizing. The second was MLK Jr., who hesitated due to a fear of being driven out of a town he just moved to. 

“And the reason why I’m going through this part of the journey [is] because in movements, everyone has something to contribute and that as we think of the Civil Rights movement or journey, it was never about one person,” he declared. 

And when the audience was listening in silence, Johnson emphasized: “It was never about a ‘dream’! It was always about the demand that the social contract we call the Constitution will be applied to all.”

Expanding on that idea while the listeners hung on his every word, Johnson proclaimed again. 

“Race is a social construct. It is a political title that we carry around to create ‘others,’” he said. “It is a tool that is still being used today so effectively that it is tearing this democracy apart.”

Moving on, Johnson addressed the audience and called on them to take part in a dialogue. Both faculty members and student leaders stood up to make additions and asked questions regarding steps moving forward at the closing of the event.

The last question was posted by Balfour-Hesburgh scholar and senior Kirsten Williams. 

“When I look at black communities in my local area, it’s disheartening to see that they’re plagued with a lot of violence,” she asked. “What are some strategies or methods that we can employ to uplift and empower Black communities?”

Johnson’s answer was that everything boiled down to hope. “What you are witnessing is the legacy of systemic barriers resulting in hopelessness,” he explained. 

To close, he told one last story about his time in a class that was a requirement for his college graduation. His teacher, Johnson said, was upset one day because of a batch of bad test scores. 

“This particular day, Dr. Simmons was late to class,” he began. “We all get there, we’re sitting quiet. He comes in and was visibly upset… He said to us ‘some of you are resting on your laurels; I assure you, they are not strong enough.’”

Johnson looked around the room and then repeated: “Some of you are sitting on your laurels… Don’t rest on your laurels.”

“All of us in this room have an obligation because we are in a top-tier percentage of those who have the skill and the ability to protect it, grow it and ensure that the social contract we call the Constitution applies to all,” he added. “But the question is, are you up to that challenge?” 

The dinner had many different sponsors, including the Multicultural Student Programs and Services (MSPS), the president’s office and the Department of Diversity and Inclusion, but the event was mainly organized by Notre Dame student government. Leading the charge was Eliza Smith, director of diversity and inclusion – race and ethnicity, and her department. Additionally, biology graduate student Camille Mosley served as the event’s emcee and first-year Bernice Antoine led the group in an opening prayer. 

“We pray for the Black community here and around the world for justice where there is in justice, peace on every street corner and hope for your grace to pour out on this nation,” she invoked with a loud “Amen” and agreement heard around the room. 

At the end of the evening, after dinner and Johnson’s talk, Mosley announced the recipients of the Black excellence staff, faculty and student awards. She explained that the nomination committee decided on the two winners in each category based on a very rigid rubric that took into account many factors including personal accomplishments and their commitment to the legacy of MLK’s dream

The staff award had 19 total nominations and winners were Barbara Wadley, the coordinator for the Balfour-Hesburgh Scholars program, and Harold Swanagan, director of basketball operations. Out of eight possible candidates, the faculty award was given to associate professor of management and organization Angela Logan and associate professor of architecture John Onyango. Finally, students Daymine Snow and Temitayo Ade-Oshifogun were chosen out of the 15 other student nominees.  

Contact Bella Laufenberg at ilaufenb@nd.edu.