|(Left) NAACP Detroit Branch President Rev. Wendell Anthony, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Detroit NAACP Executive Director Donnell White and ACRL Chairman Nabih Ayad who received the Great Expectations award. Photo courtesy of NAACP|
Speaking before thousands of attendees at Cobo Hall, keynote speaker U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the NAACP's work remains as important and urgent as ever before.
"In far too many American cities there are neighborhoods where too many kids go to prison and too few go to college; where the doors to education and opportunity seem to be firmly closed. There are school districts where suspensions are disproportionally imposed on black students, Hispanic students, poor students and students with special needs," Holder said.
Vivian Malone, the first African American to graduate from the University of Alabama, inspired Holder as a young man, and her example continues to guide him today. Malone's name became nationally known after she was barred from attending the all-white university during the early 1960s. She turned to the NAACP for help. Holder said achievements such as Malone's are what drove him to become an attorney and begin work for the NAACP's legal department during his first year of law school.
"Without the NAACP I would not be here," Holder said. He acknowledged himself and U.S. President Barack Obama as direct beneficiaries of the NAACP.
Holder highlighted the U.S. Department of Justice's accomplishments under the Obama Administration such as directing resources to investigate childhood exposure to violence, and raising awareness of its ramifications.
"Under the Obama Administration this justice department has made an unprecedented commitment to protecting the safety and the potential of our children," Holder said.
However, the Obama Administration has received international criticism for the National Defense Authorization Act, which has been called one of the greatest threats to American civil liberties.
Under the NDAA, U.S. citizens charged with having terrorist ties can be indefinitely detained without the right to a trial against the country's core constitutional values. It was roundly attacked by civil rights groups after Obama signed the measure into law New Year's Eve 2011.
U.S. Senators Carl Levin, who introduced and co-authored the NDAA, and Debbie Stabenow, who supported it, spoke at the dinner. Levin said voting restriction laws in the country must be fought, noting that they make it harder for minorities to vote. "Everyone has a right to vote, people have died to have the right to vote," he said.
The event is the largest sit-down dinner in the United States, and the Detroit NAACP is the only branch in the country that has had the privilege of hosting presidents and international dignitaries among other distinguished leaders.
“We will never forget that Rosa Parks sat down so that all of us might continue to stand up,” NAACP Detroit Chapter President Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony said. Speaking on video Obama said the Detroit chapter of the NAACP has been a beacon of integrity and leadership for a century. The president also congratulated the night's awardees. For the first time the branch honored an Arab American. Civil Rights Attorney Nabih Ayad who's the Chairman of the Arab American Civil Rights League received the Great Expectation award.
Introducing Ayad, NAACP Detroit Deputy Executive Director Donnell White said Ayad has worked to breakdown racial barriers in Michigan communities and is "a strong voice for justice."
"It is an honor to be recognized for all the hard work you do. But to receive it outside your own community is truly a blessing and a special honor to me, especially on the 100 year celebration of this great organization," Ayad said.
Other awardees included Rev. Dr. Julius Hope who's the National NAACP director of religious affairs. He received the "James Weldon Johnson" Lifetime Achievement Award. Ms. Rhonda Walker WDIV local news anchor was recognized for her work with the Rhonda Walker Foundation that empowers teen girls, and was a Great Expectation awardee as well.
Rachel Maddow host of the Emmy award winning "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC was the "Ida B. Wells" Freedom and Justice recipient. The show features Maddow's take on the biggest stories of the day political and otherwise. Maureen D. Taylor was the "Mary White Ovington" Freedom and Justice recipient. Taylor is a lifelong soldier in the war on poverty, and has served as the chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization since 1993, and was elected Treasurer of the National Welfare Rights Union in 1994.
Arab Americans had a strong presence at the dinner as many were seated at the head tables and introduced including Osama Siblani, Publisher of The Arab American News, Imad Hamad of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Rashid Baydoun of the Arab American Civil Rights League, Fay Baydoun, Executive Director of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, Imam Hassan Qazwini of the Islamic Center of America and Chaldean American Wally Jadan of Middle Eastern American Television. Before dinner was served Qazwini gave a religious speech, blessing the audience's food.