Emory Report
November 9, 2009
Volume 62, Number 10


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November 9, 2009
Alice Walker, other Johnson Medalists share in campus dialogue

By Margie Fishman

A commitment to social change takes many paths. From a child playing solitaire in rural Michigan, taking care that the diamonds and hearts do not “hurt” the clubs and spades, to another in rural Mississippi learning chemistry without test tubes, taught to achieve because there was no other choice.

These were some of the stories shared by the 2009 recipients of the James Weldon Johnson Medal, speaking at a Nov. 5 colloquium, “Lessons Learned Along This Way.”

The event, held in White Hall, featured author Alice Walker; women’s rights pioneer Gloria Steinem; E. Neville Isdell, former CEO of the Coca-Cola Company; and activist Myrlie Evers Williams, widow of murdered civil rights leader Medgar Evers. The remaining medalists, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, were unable to attend.

The Johnson Medal, one of the signature programs of Emory’s James Weldon Johnson Institute, honors achievements in literature journalism, music, civil rights and humanitarian work. The medal’s namesake was a legendary author, composer, lawyer, diplomat and leader in the modern civil rights movement.

In 2007, Emory established the James Weldon Johnson Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies (JWJI), the first institute at the University to honor the achievements of an American of African descent. This year marked the first time that Emory, as an institutional sponsor of the medal, bestowed Humanitarian Awards.

On Nov. 4, JWJI presented the six medals at The Carter Center in a ceremony that has become the Institute’s primary fundraiser to support its programs. President Jim Wagner delivered a welcome address and read from Johnson’s political essay, “Negro Americans, What Now?”

The Johnson Medal not only “honors the legacy of great Americans but it also reaffirms [Emory’s] commitment to the exploration of race and difference,” Wagner said at the ceremony.

The campus colloquium provided an opportunity for the medalists to build a dialogue with the community, said Rudolph P. Byrd, founding director of JWJI and Goodrich C. White Professor of American Studies.
“This is an integral part of the intellectual life of the Johnson Institute,” he added.

Among the “lessons” the medalists’ shared:
Steinem, former investigative journalist and founder of Ms., the first mass circulation feminist magazine, blamed “shameful childrearing” for disrupting our natural capacity for fairness and empathy.
“If we could raise one generation of children without violence, we don’t know what could be possible,” she said.

Isdell, who was born in a religiously divided Northern Ireland and attended the University of Cape Town at the height of apartheid, presided over Coca-Cola in an era of unprecedented corporate diversity.

“Never worry about what other people are saying about you,” he said. “Worry about you’re doing that would cause them to say it.”

Photo: Bryan Meltz

E. Neville Isdell, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Rudolph P. Byrd, Alice Walker
and Gloria Steinem at the Nov. 5 colloquium.