Winter 2010: Of Note
Johnson Medals Honor Civil Rights
By Paige P. Parvin 96G
Emory’s James Weldon Johnson Institute (JWJI) awarded six medals in November to renowned figures who have contributed mightily to the struggle for racial and social equality.
Johnson Institute Director Rudolph Byrd and actor Regina Taylor led the formal ceremony at The Carter Center, where the anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written by Johnson himself, began the evening by bringing the crowd to its feet. The medals were created to honor the legacy and accomplishments of the legendary writer, journalist, civil rights leader, musician, and humanitarian.
The 2009 Johnson Medalists are author Alice Walker, for literature; women’s rights pioneer Gloria Steinem, for journalism; and U.S. Representative John Lewis and activist Myrlie Evers Williams (widow of murdered civil rights leader Medgar Evers), for civil rights. Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and E. Neville Isdell, former CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, each received the first-ever Humanitarian Award, established by the Johnson Institute to honor those who have made significant contributions to humankind in the tradition of Johnson. The ceremony marks the thirteenth awarding of the medals, and the first time the awards have been given by Emory’s JWJI, the new institutional sponsor for them.
Each medal was presented following a reading from Johnson’s works.
“The Johnson Institute is doing the goddess’s work,” said Steinem, the founding editor of Ms. magazine, drawing wry chuckes from the crowd. “It is linking scholarship to activism, linking social justice movements . . . linking, never ranking. Personally, I am planning to sleep with this medal under my pillow.”
Natasha Trethewey, who holds the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry at Emory, introduced fellow Pulitzer Prize–winner Alice Walker with a reading from Johnson’s Negro Americans, What Now?
“What makes this so special,” said Walker as she accepted her medal, “is that I grew up nourished by ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’ I just in the last six months learned to play this song on the piano. If I never play another song, I wanted to play that one. . . . nobody can stop a song.”
The ceremony ended with the crowd linking arms and singing “We Shall Overcome.”