October 27, 2011

Johnson Medals to honor champions of civil and human rights Nov. 8

Emory's James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference is set to award the 2011 James Weldon Johnson Medals to five outstanding individuals whose achievements and service reflect a deep and unwavering commitment to civil and human rights. Among the recipients are legendary baseball player Hank Aaron and Nobel Prize for literature winner Wole Soyinka.

The medals will be presented at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 8 at The Carter Center. The medals honor the legacy and accomplishments of Johnson, the legendary writer, journalist, civil rights leader, musician and humanitarian. In addition to the presentation of the medals, the ceremony will include a tribute to Rudolph P. Byrd, Goodrich C. White Professor of American Studies and founding director of the Johnson Institute, who died Oct. 21 after a long battle with cancer.

"With the Johnson Medal ceremony, Rudolph Byrd had the vision to create a vibrant forum to celebrate the living history and the enduring work of the modern civil rights movement. The Johnson Medals allow us to honor this legacy and recognize outstanding individuals who have enriched us all by their commitment to civil and human rights, and distinguished themselves through excellence in their various fields," says Provost Earl Lewis, who will co-host the ceremony with Spelman College Professor Beverly Guy-Sheftall.

The Johnson Medal ceremony is one of the signature programs of the Johnson Institute. The event is free and open to the public, but tickets are required due to limited seating.  Tickets may be reserved through the Emory Alumni Association at

On Wednesday, Nov. 9, the medalists will take part in a colloquium panel discussion on campus for undergraduate students and the Emory community. "Lessons Learned Along This Way" will be from noon to 1 p.m. in White Hall 208. The medalists will share the factors that shaped their commitment to social justice, and then engage in conversation with the audience.

The 2011 Johnson Medalists include:

Henry (Hank) Aaron, for humanitarian service.

The greatest home run hitter of all time, Aaron was elected to Baseball's Hall of Fame in

January of 1982. Since his retirement from professional baseball, Aaron has given back to society for more than 30 years. His Chasing the Dream Foundation was established to help children between the ages of nine and 12 realize their dreams. The foundation provides grants to children to enable them to pursue advanced study in music, art, writing, dance and sports.  Aaron serves on the Board of Governors for Boys and Girls Clubs of America. He also serves on the board of the Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta Technical College, Retail Ventures, Inc., and Medallion Financial Corporation.  Aaron received the first Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Legacy Award from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, honoring his "career excellence in the face of adversity" in February 2003. 

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, for human rights.

An-Na'im is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law and director of the Center for International and Comparative Law at Emory Law. An-Na'im, originally from Sudan, is an internationally recognized scholar of Islam and human rights, and human rights in cross-cultural perspectives. He teaches courses in human rights, religion and human rights, Islamic law, and criminal law, and is the author or editor of eight books. An-Na'im has focused on cultural transformation and human rights in Africa and the application of Islamic family law throughout the world.

Xernona Clayton, for journalism.

Clayton is the founder, president and CEO of the Trumpet Awards Foundation, Inc. and creator and executive producer of the Foundation's Trumpet Awards. Clayton began her television career in 1967 and became the South's first African American to have her own television show, "The Xernona Clayton Show," which aired in Atlanta. Clayton moved to Atlanta in 1965 to work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dedicated to promoting racial understanding, Clayton has been a leader in civic projects and civil rights activities for most of her life. Employed at Turner Broadcasting for nearly 30 years, Clayton was appointed corporate vice president for urban affairs with Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. in 1988 and was one of the highest-ranking female employees at Turner.  

Willie Christine King Farris, for humanitarian service.

Farris is the eldest and only living sibling of the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Farris, a career educator, is associate professor of education and the director of the Learning Resources Center at Spelman College.  She is the author of several books and an acclaimed speaker on various topics, including the King family, multicultural education and teaching, and the life of her brother. Farris' personal memoir, "Through It All: Still Standing," was published in 2009. Her children's book published in 2003, "My Brother Martin," has been described as "a window to show Martin as a small boy in a loving extended family." She is a legacy member and trustee at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Wole Soyinka, for literature.

Soyinka, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 and Emory Woodruff Professor Emeritus, has published more than 30 works, and continues to be active in various international artistic and human rights organizations. Soyinka, a native of Nigeria, has won numerous civic and professional awards, held several university positions, and still lectures extensively. He is currently professor emeritus in comparative literature at Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria, and President's Professor at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.

Each medal will be presented following a reading from Johnson's works by special guests from Emory and Atlanta. The Coca-Cola Company is sponsoring the ceremony as a Founding Corporate Sponsor of the Johnson Institute.

For more information, call 404.727.2515 or visit

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