NAACP of Martha’s Vineyard honors three, recalls MLK

Keynote speaker Patricia Sullivan focused on the significance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s role in the civil rights movement within the history of the NAACP. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

More than 100 members of the NAACP of Martha’s Vineyard gathered at the Harbor View Hotel Monday evening for the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Membership and Awards Dinner.

The nearly equal racial integration of the crowd prompted Angela Wheeler, development director at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, to say, “One thing about the NAACP on the Island is that it is one of the most diverse memberships that I’ve seen.” Ms. Wheeler moved to the Island in April after living in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. “It’s good to see our community come together regardless of color for the NAACP,” she added

During the cocktail and silent auction hour preceding the dinner, Olive Tomlinson of Oak Bluffs commented, “It’s a wonderful way to touch base off-season with the core of the membership.”

It’s also, very importantly, an opportunity for the local chapter to recognize its leaders, honor community members who have made a difference on the Island and offer up thoughts, recollections, and words of inspiration focused on Dr. King and the civil rights movement.

This year the keynote speaker was Patricia Sullivan, a history professor at the University of South Carolina who has published three books on the civil rights movement including “Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement,” published in 2009. Signed paperback copies of the exhaustively researched history, which was a finalist last year for the Robert F. Kennedy Award, were available for sale during the cocktail hour.

Laurie Perry-Henry, president of the NAACP of Martha’s Vineyard, was the first to take the podium. In brief welcoming remarks, she referenced the recent tragedy in Tucson, calling it “a grim reminder that the country has not yet achieved Dr. King’s dream of a peaceful society.” She urged the assembled members to take an active role in the organization’s many and varied missions through committee membership.

Pastor Marcia Buckley of the Apostolic House of Prayer then offered the invocation. She too encouraged members to pursue service work. “Fill us with the same spirit that impelled Martin Luther King Jr.,” she prayed.

In introducing Ms. Sullivan, educator and historian Sheldon Hackney related a story about his mother-in-law, Virginia Durr, a long-time summer resident who was a well-known civil rights activist in the south from the 1950s on. Ms. Durr was a close friend of Rosa Parks and was among those who bailed the civil rights icon out of jail when she was arrested in 1955. Leading into Ms. Sullivan’s speech, Mr. Hackney noted, “We’re connected personally to King, including in that event.”

Ms. Sullivan, a co-director of the 2011 NEH Summer Institute at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute on “African-American Struggles for Freedom and Civil Rights” took an academician’s approach to her speech, putting MLK’s involvement in the civil rights movement into context with the NAACP’s long and valiant history.

Expressing a wish to “resurrect him [King] from his lonely iconic status,” she added, “too often the era he is identified with has been frozen in time. It is a story detached from a long struggle. Martin Luther King reminded us in 1966 ‘Human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.'”

Ms. Sullivan proceeded to present a thorough history of the early years of the NAACP and the civil rights movement in America, spotlighting some of the larger-than-life heroes as well as the less lauded individuals whose heroism propelled the movement forward. Ms. Sullivan’s enthusiasm for, and total immersion in, the subject to which she has devoted a career, was very much in evidence as she spoke with perceptible awe and reverence on the tenacity of the movement’s pioneers who had to contend with atrocities and stubbornly ingrained attitudes.

Both Ms. Sullivan’s passion for her subject and the thoroughness in which she has undertaken her extensive research was obvious as she recounted the payoff of trawling through thousands of documents, letters, and other materials at the Library of Congress.

“This rich history lives in a sea of documents,” she said, adding that she was rewarded for her diligence by having the opportunity to read many very personal eyewitness accounts from the most turbulent times. “I also saw what they saw and it was a horror show.”

After the lengthy keynote speech, Sheriff Michael McCormack conducted a swearing-in of the officers and committee members of the local chapter. This short ceremony was followed by the presentation of awards to Donald G. Mayhew, E. Jacqueline Hunt, and W. Leo Frame Jr., this year’s NAACP-M.V. honorees for their service to the community. Event organizers Basil Jones and Colleen Morris presented the awards.

Mr. Frame was off-Island accompanying one of the members of his mentorship group, Young Brothers to Men, who was also receiving an award. Two teen members of the organization, Randall Jette and Delmont Araujo, accepted the award on Mr. Frame’s behalf.

Ms. Hunt used the opportunity to recognize a number of those in the community who have died, and to exhort her fellow members to get more involved. She spoke eloquently and spiced her impromptu speech with a liberal dose of much-appreciated humor. The long-time chapter president emphasized that the current members must make an effort to involve young Islanders in reaching their goals.

“We’re trying to have a younger mindset and exposure to new ideas,” said Barbara Morgan, nurse manager of the MV hospital operating room.

The importance of involving young people in the NAACP’s mission was seconded by Ms. Tomlinson. “I appreciate what they’re doing with the young people because I don’t see that in my day-to-day life,” she said. “When they honor young people and those who work with young people, it’s great to see our mission taken up by the sparkling eyes of the youth.”