At NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner in Detroit, a focus on voting rights, freedoms

Hayley Harding
The Detroit News

Detroit — As Michigan gears up for another election in the fall, attendees of the NAACP Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner on Sunday talked about what is needed to protect the right to vote, a keystone of democracy.

The theme of the evening was "Freedom is expensive, but tyranny is unaffordable." Each speaker noted that while it was not easy to continue to support the rights of Michiganians and voters across the country, it was essential to carry on the push for voting rights.

"We stand at the crossroads of whether we will turn toward an autocracy or maintain our democracy in these United States of America," said Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the NAACP Detroit Branch. "While democracy is under a violent attack and genocide erupts in Ukraine, it is under an ideological siege and political fratricide right here in America."

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II chats with actors Annie Ilonzeh and Lamman Rucker before the start of the NAACP Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner in Detroit on Sunday.

Speakers and those given awards at the dinner spoke about voting rights. The event was double the size of last year's event, closer to the pre-pandemic Freedom Fund dinners that were some of the largest NAACP gatherings in the country.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said Huntington Place, where the dinner took place, was the site of "one of the most egregious" attacks on voting after the location became a hotspot of controversy during the 2020 election, when conservative groups told members to travel to Detroit to watch the counting of absentee ballots.

"But when you attack the rights of Detroiters, we fight back," Duggan said, citing the lawsuits filed against people who pushed false claims of voter fraud.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also advocated for efforts to support voting rights in the state. Whitmer announced during the dinner that she had signed an executive directive instructing state departments and agencies to seek ways to help connect the public with information on how to register to vote.

Whitmer, who is up for reelection in the fall, said as governor, she would continue to support voting rights. She reminded the audience how during the last NAACP Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner in October, she vetoed several bills that she said would have restricted access to the polls.

"I'm proud to use that veto pen," Whitmer said Sunday, explaining how just days prior, she vetoed another voting bill. "You want to beat back voting rights in Michigan, you got to come through Big Gretch," she said.

The language of that bill by the GOP-led Legislature proposed to add to the absentee application would have stated the voter understood that offering to vote or attempting to vote more than once in the same election was a felony. 

Ray Jackson, left; television personality Scott Evans; actor Chris Spencer; and Rick Wershe, known as White Boy Rick, chat before the start of the NAACP Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner at Huntington Place in Detroit on Sunday.

The bill was among several by the GOP-led Legislature that Whitmer has vetoed over the past year as Republicans seeks stricter voting standards in the wake of the 2020 election. 

Republicans have argued that the bills are not limiting voting access but instead fixing weaknesses in voting security and integrity.  

“We’re going to work to make it easier to vote and impossible to cheat," said Gustavo Portela, spokesperson for the Michigan Republican Party. "Gretchen Whitmer will do whatever to stop us but we won’t be deterred. Michiganders deserve free and fair elections.” 

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Attorney General Dana Nessel, Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters were among state leaders who attended the dinner. 

Chris Smalls, the president of the Amazon labor union, attends a press conference before the start of the NAACP Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner, at Huntington Place, in Detroit, May 1, 2022.

The event had no keynote speaker this year, instead focusing on award winners and speeches from NAACP leaders or those in government. Among award winners were Chris Smalls, the labor organizer who helped lead the Amazon Labor Union to become an National Labor Relations Board-recognized union last month, and state Rep. Sarah Anthony, a Democrat from Lansing, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus and has introduced bills to end racially based hair discrimination. Anthony and Smalls were awarded the Great Expectations award.

Gary Torgow, chairman of Huntington National Bank, is acknowledged during a press conference before the start of the NAACP dinner Sunday. He received the Lifetime Achievement award for his work with the Detroit NAACP and other civil rights groups and causes.

Other awardees included Cynthia D. Stephens, who received the Ida B. Wells Freedom and Justice Award. Stephens recently retired from the Michigan Court of Appeals. Gary Torgow, chairman of Huntington Bank, was given the Lifetime Achievement award for his work with the Detroit NAACP and other civil rights groups and causes.

Several actors and celebrities also attended the dinner, spending time on the red carpet before the event. They included Lamman Rucker, of several soap operas and the Oprah Winfrey Network show, "Greenleaf"; Elise Neal of "The Black Hamptons"; Annie Ilonzeh of "Chicago Fire"; comedian and actor Chris Spencer; Scott Evans, host of "Access Hollywood"; and Tobias Truvillion, of "Empire."

Richard Wershe Jr., known as "White Boy Rick," also joined the event with Rucker. The former FBI informant spent more than three decades behind bars but was released in 2020.

Twitter: @Hayley__Harding