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Detroit — U.S. Sen. Cory Booker spoke Sunday at the 63th annual Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner in Detroit about what he called the “unfinished business of America” in a speech that avoided politics or his political aspirations.

The New Jersey senator, a rising political star who has been named as a potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, sidestepped any mention of President Donald Trump but instead stressed the similarities between the city and his home of Newark, along with his family’s Detroit roots in his 40 minute keynote address.

“We see everyday the unfinished business of America,” Booker, whose mother was from Detroit, said at the annual Detroit NAACP dinner. “I feel a sense of urgency as I stand here right now. But I want you to know being here in Detroit rekindles my sense of hope and potential.”

Before Booker’s speech, NAACP organizers announced Sunday night that the group’s 110th annual national conference will be held in Detroit in 2019. This year, it is being held in July in San Antonio.

The event, whose theme was “We can’t rest now, the stakes are too high,” was held at Cobo Center and is the Detroit branch’s largest fundraiser. Last year, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the keynote speaker and used the speech to rail againt the Trump administration.

Booker stayed positive, urging the audience to believe that “one act of protest, one act of kindness, one act of love” could spur change and not “to stay spectators.”

He told the story of his parents who faced housing discrimination while trying to buy his boyhood home in New Jersey, but were helped by a white lawyer. The lawyer joined the fight for fair housing after watching coverage of “Bloody Sunday,” where civil rights marchers were beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965.

He said the country needs to fight efforts to roll back voting rights, end solitary confinement for imprisoned youth, address the mortality rate for black mothers and make sure people who work full time are not living in poverty.

“We cannot grow weary now. We have come a mighty long way,” Booker said. “We must be the generation that, when we say the (patriotic) songs and say the words, we must be the generation committed to making them real.”

Booker, 49, has served as a senator from New Jersey since 2013. Prior to that he was the 36th mayor of Newark from 2006 to 2013 and a member of the Newark City Council from 1998 to 2002.

He recently proposed giving 15 depressed areas nationwide federal money to guarantee all residents a job paying a minimum $15 an hour, a project titled the Federal Jobs Guarantee Development Act.

Attorney Melvin Butch Hollowell, general chair of the dinner, cited four areas that the social justice group is focusing efforts: improving Detroit schools, getting out the vote in 2018 and 2020, an overhaul of high auto insurance rates and making it easier for Detroit residents to expunge criminal records in order to gain employment.

“Let’s give people an opportunity,” Hollowell said. “Everybody deserves a second chance.”

Among those honored at the dinner were UAW Vice President Jimmy Settles, head of the union’s Ford department, with the James Weldon Johnson Lifetime Achievement Award.

At a pre-dinner news conference, Mayor Mike Duggan recognized last week’s end of the state’s financial oversight of Detroit post-bankruptcy. He added that over the last 10 years, the city has been able to shed state and federal oversight of the city water department, Police Department, Detroit Housing Commission and school district.

“The right to vote doesn’t mean a lot if your elected officials don’t really have the authority to do the job,” Duggan said. “For the first time in decades, the elected officials of this city have full control.”

NAACP President Rev. Wendell Anthony said at Sunday’s event that he believed “our struggle is in good hands when I see young people standing up, speaking up, being bold and unafraid.”

“Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King left us with a question: ‘Where do we go from here? Chaos or community.’ We are still trying to answer when our nation has entered a period where truth is no longer on the throne. And right from wrong seems to be very far away from our home.”

cmacdonald@detroitnews.com

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