NAACP annual gathering honors Dr. King's legacy
From the resounding strains of "Free at Last" at the beginning of the evening to the warm tribute and applause for outgoing president Marie Allen at the end, and the enlightening speech by engineering scientist, educator, and author Raymond Webster in between, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Membership and Awards Dinner Tuesday night was a vibrant and inspiring affair.
Handshakes, hugs, and upbeat conversation marked the social hour as members greeted old friends and met new ones. First vice president Carrie Tankard and Vera Shorter, both members of the dinner committee, welcomed some 150 guests who packed the Edgartown Room of the Harbor View Hotel for the sumptuous feast.
"This evening some of us will remember what our lives were like before we marched on Washington," said Natalie Dickerson, who took over the duties of president from Ms. Allen on Jan. 1. "All of us have bittersweet memories of life before Dr. King taught us that we will overcome."
Outgoing president Marie Allen (left) with new president Natalie Dickerson. Photos by Ralph Stewart
Ms. Dickerson exhorted the audience to pass on to young people the rich history of the civil rights struggle and the revolutionary changes that came from Dr. King's dedication. "This is a day, a week, a month, a year that we should always remember to live with the dignity and solidarity that brought us together," she said. "As we celebrate Dr. King's birthday let us all remember to hold each other's hand in strength, unity, and love and live each day in his honor."
Jim Thomas and his NAACP Sprituals Choir, a group that has become well-known on the Island for its high quality and energized performances, mesmerized the crowd with three selections. The musical offerings were interspersed with historical notes from the knowledgeable Mr. Thomas, who will soon return to the Virginia area where he leads the massive Red Cross Choir. In his absence, the local singers will take a break, to be joined by many off-Island members and resume rehearsals in May for an active summer season. But first they will head to Stamford, Conn., and Hartsdale, N.Y., to present several church concerts. The group's closing number, "Don't You Let Nobody Turn You Around," featured soaring solo passages sung by Kate Taylor.
Keynote speaker Raymond Webster.
The dinner is always a festive highlight of the year for the local NAACP branch. It is a night for friends and finery, a time to look at achievements of the past while recognizing the challenges that still exist. It is certainly a night when black and white Islanders join comfortably and companionably together as they honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King and share a bright occasion.
But even in the midst of this goodwill and solidarity there are reminders that racial prejudice still exists and that discrimination has long-ranging effects. The evening's guest speaker, Raymond Webster, following many successful years as a consultant and research scientist, is now working tirelessly to correct misinformation about the role of African Americans in invention, science, and technology. He charges that some of these inaccuracies happened by mistake, others intentionally, but that all have been perpetuated.
"As a young man he was driven," said past president Mandred Henry about Mr. Webster, whom he knew as a youth in Hartford, Conn. "He took care of business."
With degrees from Morgan State University and Howard University, Mr. Webster was a senior engineer at the Martin Marietta Corp. and also for General Electric, working on NASA and U.S. Air Force space and aircraft projects. He owned his own company for 25 years as president and director of operations, and taught at Villanova and Drexel universities in their evening divisions. He now lectures widely, is resident historian for the Philadelphia School District and has produced segments for the television show, "The Science of Philadelphia," on African American contributions to science and tehnology. He is the author of "African American Firsts in Science and Technology."
Gently spoken but articulate and engaging, Mr. Webster quickly caught the audience's attention, listing a number of significant scientific discoveries and inventions made by African Americans in the United States over history. Although the achievements are impressive and reason for pride, he said, most of them are unknown, or if there is some general awareness of them the information is not accurate. Mr. Webster, who has taught at the college level and frequently speaks to students, educators, and community groups on this subject, said that a survey of elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. shows a dramatic scarcity of classes in African American history. A look at many top colleges shows a similar lack of such courses. "How can teachers teach this subject if they are not taught about it in college?" he asked.
Mr. Webster's goal is to set the record straight about the important contributions of black people. "African Americans can do more than sing, dance, jump, and play football," he said.
Information on major achievements by African Americans is often eliminated from history books and courses, Mr. Webster pointed out. If mentioned at all it is minimalized or marginalized. He cited examples of successes and innovations by African Americans in fields from agriculture and chemistry to electronics, architecture, and even shoe manufacturing and sugar refinement and urged others to "get on the bandwagon with me" to make the facts available.
Asked later why he had succeeded when many young black men cannot get ahead, he explained, "I had a good work ethic, I worked hard to overcome obstacles, and I had many good role models of African Americans who had overcome obstacles."
In a conversation yesterday, president Natalie Dickerson described several NAACP initiatives, now are underway, all aimed at bringing together people of varying ethnicities.
Ms. Dickerson, a longtime summer visitor who moved from Stamford, Conn., to the Vineyard full time in 2005, said that after attending last year's dinner she sought to get involved with the organization and help in whatever way she could. Before she knew it, she was asked to be the president. Although she had not sought the office, she said she is pleased with her new role.
"I'm happy," Ms Dickerson said. "We have a lot of potential on this Island to do some interesting things, and there are wonderful people who are actively involved," Ms. Dickerson said the group is working on starting an NAACP branch for young people. The project aims to bring together youths from various backgrounds. "It's a good, positive way for people from different backgrounds to get to know each other. That's a wonderful, positive way to fight prejudice."
Also underway is an educational project on diabetes, a disease that Ms. Dickerson notes "crosses all ethnic groups." In addition, education chairman Leigh French will work with the Martha's Vineyard Museum to develop a series of presentations for both adults and children, again in an effort to bring people of various ethicities and backgrounds together.
Ms. Dickerson also promised that a number of "fun fund-raisers" would be on the calendar. She concluded by saying, "We'd like people to get to know us better so we can all work together for a better Island."