Downsized Detroit Branch NAACP's Freedom Fund Dinner returns in-person Oct. 3

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

In a typical year, the Detroit Branch of the NAACP would welcome thousands downtown to the TCF Center on a spring evening to honor luminaries on the front lines for civil rights.

NAACP Detroit president Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony welcomes guests to the NAACP 64th Annual Fight For Freedom Fund Dinner at Cobo Center in Detroit on May 5, 2019.

As the pandemic gripped southeast Michigan in 2020, the group’s annual Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner was pushed to the fall in a virtual ceremony.

This year, the fundraiser, considered among the largest sit-down dinners in the nation, returns in-person, but in a different format.

Only a fraction of the traditional 10,000 attendees are expected at the event on Oct. 3, which is slated to be socially distanced with requirements for vaccination proof or a negative COVID-19 test.

Reminders of the lingering virus, as well as the theme, “Don’t Rest On Your Freedom,” underscore the need for the gathering’s focus on activism when issues such as voting rights, racial discrimination and economic inequality remain, organizers say.

“We have an election in the city. We’re going to have a major election next year — we cannot allow people to take our vote,” said the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit Branch NAACP. “We cannot sit by and watch politicians in Lansing or in D.C. push us back 50 years by reducing our impact. … We cannot afford to go back. We don’t want to lose anything.”

Attendees pause for a moment of silence for the late Judge Damon Keith at the NAACP 64th Annual Fight For Freedom Fund Dinner at Cobo Center in Detroit on May 5, 2019.

The 66th Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner is set to toast figures in Michigan and nationwide who have worked to address pressing issues.

The keynote speaker is Marcia Fudge, secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The former congresswoman is “a fierce advocate for fair housing and expanded housing for Americans across the country," the Detroit Branch NAACP said in a statement last week announcing her inclusion.

This month, HUD announced it has awarded nearly $5.2 million toward programming to combat youth homelessness in Detroit.

“With all the emphasis on Build Back Better from the (Biden) administration, particularly with the flooding and the need for equal housing and infrastructure, Detroit is certainly a key city in that effort to rebuild,” Anthony said. “We’re excited about her coming.”

Marcia Fudge

The Ida B. Wells Freedom and Justice Award will be presented to U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus and was arrested last summer while advocating for voting rights.

Also during the dinner, John E. Johnson Jr., who this year became executive director at the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, receives the W.E.B. Du Bois Freedom and Justice Award.

The attorney previously held leadership positions with the Detroit Branch NAACP, the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus and the Legal Aid and Defenders Association. He also was a corporation counsel for the city of Detroit and a management consultant with Legal Services Corporation in Washington, D.C., according to his department biography.

Johnson said he was “humbled” to earn the accolade amid turbulent times for the NAACP and his department.

“At the same time the country has experienced the worst global pandemic in a century — a tragedy that has had a devastating and disproportionate impact on the people our organizations serve — we have seen an alarming resurgence of white supremacy, racial and ethnic intimidation, bias and hate crimes, and an unprecedented attempt to roll back voting rights,” he said in a statement.

“While we have certainly progressed as a nation since W.E.B. Du Bois founded the NAACP, his battles — to call out racism, to end discrimination in employment and education, to face up to our history and speak the truth about our legacy of racial animus — is startlingly familiar to the NAACP of today and all the people still working to build a more just and equitable society.”

Another honoree is Hassan Jaber, president and CEO at the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, or ACCESS. He is receiving the James Weldon Johnson Lifetime Achievement Awardee "for his 16 years of exemplary leadership and service as an inspiration to generations of individuals focused on improving quality of life," coordinators said.

One of two Great Expectation Award recipients will be Detroit police Officer Bryant George. He is the founder and operator of Game Game Mobile and More LLC, which

provides video game and virtual reality experiences, and has been active with the Detroit Police Athletic League.

George has been “bridging the gap between law enforcement and folk in our community,” Anthony said.

The officer said he launched his business as a way to create positive interactions in the wake of George Floyd’s death in an encounter with Minneapolis police last year.

Returning to the Freedom Fund Dinner as an award recipient is a chance to network and find more motivation, he said. “I’m always looking forward to seeing everyone who from sunup to sundown is fighting a good fight of faith to ensure that children and adults in our community here have access to a fair opportunity and resources to experience a normal life.”

Besides local leaders, past Freedom Fund dinners have drawn speakers such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, U.S. President Barack Obama, former U.S. Secretary of State and presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

The first keynote speaker, in 1956, was Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. In 2019, it was future Vice President Kamala Harris, then a California senator and presidential candidate.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris gives the keynote address at the NAACP 64th Annual Fight For Freedom Fund Dinner at Cobo Center in Detroit on May 5, 2019.

Anthony believes each dinner offers a call for action and notes the latest comes as the country faces rising hate crimes and political upheaval, including Michigan lawmakers this year introducing bills to alter state election laws.

Participants could be inspired to think: "I need to do something," Anthony said. " 'I need to open up my mouth, I need to get busy, I need to stand up and I need to speak out and I need to work on this freedom trail.' " 

Registration and tickets for the event are available online or by calling the Detroit Branch NAACP at (313) 871-2087.