Today’s leaders need to remember that they were not first, that others came before them and blazed trails in the fight for equal rights. And today’s leaders need to continue that fight.
That, in a nutshell, was the theme of a fiery speech by the Rev. Dr. Francys Johnson, the president of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, on Saturday evening.
He was the guest speaker at the Liberty County Branch of the NAACP’s annual Freedom Fund Banquet at the Liberty County Community Complex in Midway. “Pursuing Liberty in the Face of Injustice” was the theme for the evening.
Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas received the Ralph W. Quarterman Award, given to those who demonstrate a great concern and support for civil rights issues. Pastor Katrina Deason was given the W.C. Shipman Trailblazer Award, which is awarded to a person who has blazed trail by being the “first” in a vocation or discipline through leadership and determination. The E.B. Cooper Education Award was bestowed upon Debra B. Frazier, principal of Midway Middle School, for educational leadership and services in the community.
The community complex used to house the old Liberty County High School that served black students before the county schools were integrated in 1972. Johnson said he was impressed with how the county preserved its history. He mentioned that usually, buildings like the complex fall into disrepair. He said it lets him know that community members realize that they did not get to where they are today by themselves.
During his roughly hourlong speech, Johnson mentioned several historical figures in the struggle for equal rights. Chief among those he spoke of was Tunis Campbell,whom the New Georgia Encyclopedia lists as “highest-ranking and most-influential African-American politician in 19th-century Georgia.”
“Tunis Campbell, a preacher of the Gospel who organized blacks to vote, was the most prominent African-American politician in this part of the country, anywhere close to this part of the country,” Johnson said. “He helped write the constitution for the state. ...
“You didn’t get here by yourself,” Johnson continued. “So it’s appropriate to memorialize Cooper and Quarterman. These awards, those who received them, know that you join a legacy. Folks will stand on yours in the years to come. I am ever more guided by the notion that there is a great cloud of witnesses watching what we’re doing — watching how we use whatever advantage they have given us.”
Among other figures he mentioned were Benjamin Elijah Mays, Frederick Douglass, John Calvin, the Apostle Paul, Jesus, Joseph, Abraham and all the way to God.
Johnson talked about the importance of the NAACP in past and present events, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Johnson went on to discuss the events surrounding the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland. Johnson described racism as a “disease that eats at the rational mind of people.” He said the NAACP needs to have an agenda because those who organize against progress also have an agenda.
“The agenda has to be more than electing somebody with black skin,” Johnson said. “This is ‘their’ agenda. I’m not talking about white. I’m not talking about Republican. I’m talking about regardless of the color of their skin or their party affiliation, whoever is not for moving this country forward and the expansion of ‘we’ in ‘We the People.’”
He said the Voting Rights Act was gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision striking down mandatory federal review of nine states’ changes in election laws, including Georgia. He also cited those who oppose immigration and fair wages as being part of the agenda the NAACP must oppose.
“If you don’t have an agenda, you’re going to be on someone else’s agenda if you’re not organized,” Johnson said. “So this is the agenda I say we should fight for: We should fight for an American agenda — not a black agenda; a red, white and blue agenda. The agenda that says every child, every citizen deserves to go to high-quality public schools from pre-K through 12th grade.”
Johnson said people should fight for a stable economy that rewards labor and is not tilted toward the privileged few, as well as a fair criminal-justice system and an agenda that secures the right to vote.
“One day, we will be called, and we will be summoned,” Johnson said. “The question will be asked, ‘How did we squander so great an inheritance?’ Right now, you can pick up the phone and reach more people with the message of this night than Harriet Tubman did all the days of her life. ‘How did we squander so much and accomplish so little?’”
He said he did not think Liberty County would not have to worry about this “because you are a blessed people, because you have an agenda and are willing to be organized.”
Other awards went to Reginald Charles Martin, municipal-court judge pro tempore for Hinesville, and Pastor Eric Hollis. Hollis goes around the country teaching seminars to young adults and is the chairman of the Liberty County NAACP Youth Council.
A special coin — with one side showing the emblem of the NAACP founded in 1909, and the other the emblem of the Liberty County branch established in 1952 — was given to Riceboro City Councilman Chris Stacey for coordinating the branch’s community forum on policing in the county. The Rev. DeRon Harper also was awarded with a coin for spearheading the organization’s race, religion and politics forum.
The banquet was sponsored by Farm Bureau of Georgia, Georgia Farm Bureau Insurance Services; Allstate, The Bennett Agency; Dorchester Funeral Home; Best Care Inc. Home Health Care; Claudia Bryant; Allen Brown; Charles Frasier; Darien Townsend; and Jeffrey and Valerie West.