At NAACP Freedom Fund dinner, speakers encourage people to fight for voting rights

Hayley Harding
The Detroit News

At the NAACP Freedom Fund dinner Sunday night, the message was clear: The fight for civil rights is not over.

Speakers told the audience that state legislatures across the country have introduced bills to restrict voting rights. In some states, they said, the right to an abortion has been limited. Education opportunities, safe places to live — all at risk without more work from activists all over the country, they warned.

"Don't rest on your freedom," said the Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit NAACP branch, echoing the theme of the evening. "They're coming for other folks today, but they may be coming for you tomorrow."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer spoke about bills approved by the Michigan Legislature that she said would limit access to the voting booth. Saying they were the response of  "partisan actors spreading lies and conspiracy," she vetoed four bills in front of the crowd.

"We must stand together to stop this," Whitmer said to a standing ovation as she promised to veto any other bills that would restrict voting rights. "They will not stop, and we will not either." 

Although smaller than usual because of COVID-19 restrictions, the 66th annual dinner was a celebration of what leaders across the state had accomplished since the virtual event last year and what work must still be done, organizers said. 

Keynote speaker Marcia Fudge, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, quoted from the Book of Matthew to Beyoncé when talking about the Detroit branch of NAACP's role in ending segregation and advancing prosperity in the city.  

"I charge you to raise your voices, to raise your voice for voting rights and civil rights, for jobs and health care," Fudge said. She said that in the United States, the richest nation in the world, people needed to continue to be their brother's keeper.

She said she sometimes felt like Sisyphus in Greek mythology, pushing a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back.But, she said, with President Joe Biden's agenda, people would see tangible improvements in their lives from affordable housing to the creation of more jobs.

Twilah Beckom of Detroit, center, looks on during the Detroit Branch NAACP’s 66th Annual Fight For Freedom Fund Dinner at TCF Center in Detroit.

Republicans have criticized Biden's agenda for being too expensive and adding more to the federal debt.

Fudge encouraged people to "be relentless" about speaking up for freedom, particularly voting rights.

"You can still make things happen for the betterment of Black people and people of color all over this land," she said. "The whole world must know that you are going to push for freedom."

Several others were honored. U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty, a Democrat who represents the Columbus, Ohio, area, received the Ida B. Wells Freedom and Justice Award.

Beatty's work to protect voting rights has included work to end purging of voter rolls and supporting updates to the Voting Rights Act. In July, she was arrested in a Senate office building in Washington, D.C., during a demonstration on voting rights.

She encouraged people to continue to take bold action to protect what was important to their rights.

Also honored was Detroit police Officer Bryant L. George, founder and operator of Game Game Mobile and More LLC, and Arian S. Reed, co-founder and general partner of the Fearless Fund. Game Game Mobile provides video game and virtual reality experiences; the Fearless Fund is a venture capital fund that invests in businesses owned by women of color.

Great Expectation Award recipient and Detroit Police Officer Bryant L. George, founder and operator of the Game Game Mobile and More LLC, speaks during the Detroit Branch NAACP’s 66th Annual Fight For Freedom Fund Dinner at TCF Center in Detroit, Sunday.

The W.E.B. Du Bois Freedom and Justice award went to attorney John E. Johnson Jr, the new executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. Hassan Jaber, president and CEO of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), was awarded the James Weldon Johnson Lifetime Achievement Award.