November 10, 2010

Johnson medalists honored

Joseph P. Lowery is presented with the Johnson Medal for civil rights.

As civil rights leaders Joseph E. Lowery, Robert P. Moses and Andrew J. Young linked arms to sing "We Shall Overcome," the emblematic anthem of the civil rights movement seemed to transform the James Weldon Johnson Medal Awards Ceremony in time.

Emory's James Weldon Johnson Institute honored seven individuals for their achievements in civil rights, law, and humanitarian service at the Nov. 8 event.

The medals commemorate the life and accomplishments of James Weldon Johnson, a pioneer in the modern civil rights movement, Johnson Institute director Rudolph P. Byrd explained.

Emory "reaffirms its unwavering commitment to the exploration of race and difference" through signature programs such as this, said President Jim Wagner.

Accepting their honors, the Johnson Medalists shared their stories.

Confronting the Ku Klux Klan

Emory alum and community organizer Lucy Cline Huie '39Ox -'42G worked to keep schools open in Jonesboro, Ga. in the 1950s when the Brown vs. the Board of Education case threatened to close them.

She and her family were threatened with cross burnings and scary phone calls and people in tKu Klux Klan regalia.

 "Nothing physical happened, but it was a very scary time."

Working for Holocaust victims

Deborah E. Lipstadt, Emory's Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies, recounted her experience as the object of a libel suit for labeling British historian David Irving a Holocaust denier. 

Her encounter with Holocaust survivors as outcome of the trial "is how I had the strength. I had the privilege of standing up for others. In Judaism, the highest act of lovingkindness is when you care for the dead.  It is a genuine act of righteousness."

Legendary civil rights leader remembers

Lowery recalled giving the benediction at President Barack Obama's inauguration with words from Johnson's hymn. "I could think of no better words to open that prayer than these: 'Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way.'"

Lowery cofounded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  and was awarded an honorary degree by Emory this year.

On the frontline of voter registration

Moses was a public face of Mississippi's voter registration campaign.

A young man, named Jimmy, confronted the system, putting his own life on the line to help others register to vote. "What would you do if you were shot in the back of the head?" Jimmy is asked.  He responds, "Nothing, but there are many others who will come in my place," said Moses, telling the story.

Role model for women

Justice Leah Ward Sears rose from Atlanta's Traffic Court to become the first African American woman elected to the Superior Court of Fulton County. She then became the first woman, and the youngest person, to sit on the Georgia  serving as chief justice, inform 2005 to 2009.

"Fifteen years ago, I was a mere curiosity on the Supreme Court of Georgia," said the alumna of Emory's School of Law, and  trustee of the University.

Boxing with God

Young, introduced by former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, recounted his public service record. He was a pastor in Alabama, then New York. He got involved in Atlanta's voter registration drives.

He served in the House of Representatives, as the first African American ambassador to the United Nations, and as mayor of Atlanta.

Describing his journey, Young quoted Johnson, "Young man, young man, your arms is too short to box with God."

Honors to a Johnson scholar

The late Sondra K. Wilson was a leading scholar on Johnson. She was instrumental in researching and reintroducing his writing, keeping his works in print. She also facilitated the donation of many of Johnson's writings and artifacts to Emory. 

Her award was accepted by her brother.

'Lessons Learned Along This Way'

In a Tuesday, Nov. 9 colloquium for the campus community, several of the medalists spoke of the experiences that led to their involvement in human and civil rights struggles.

Sears: "I was going to be a civil rights lawyer and make it good for blacks and women, but by the time I came of age it was over."

Moses, who has made encouraging equal education in public schools his life's work, said, "We have started a movement for quality education for students 10 to 40 years old as citizens of the country. In 30 years, they'll be running the country."

Lipstadt summed up the issues the Johnson Institute fights when she said, "Anti-semitism, racism and sexism are forms of prejudice — 'pre-judging' — where people say 'don't bother me with facts; I've made up my mind'."

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