Martha’s Vineyard NAACP honors those who make a difference

Paddy Moore and Leon Brathwait were among the guests. — Photo by Don Hinkle

“We are a close-knit Island family,” Martha’s Vineyard NAACP president Laurie Perry-Henry said, as she welcomed some 80 members and friends to the group’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Membership and Awards Dinner Saturday evening in Edgartown. With several refreshing departures from past traditions, this year’s gathering wove together themes of civil rights, human rights, and community service.

While in many recent years the guest speakers were black men and women from off-Island distinguished in their fields, Saturday’s program spotlighted familiar Vineyard friends and neighbors. Instead of a single lecture, the event featured an easy give-and-take among three presenters with plenty of opportunity for audience participation.

And far from offering a simple “thank you” when accepting their awards, the three Vineyard community activist honorees stressed the importance of volunteerism and urged others to follow their examples.

Also new was the venue, Edgartown’s Grill on Main. The small, intimate space made for a comfortable and convivial atmosphere in which to socialize, honor Dr. King and his legacy, reflect on progress, and recommit to work ahead.

In comments throughout the evening, it became clear that those present believed that although racial discrimination remains a major challenge, human rights battles against persistent problems like homelessness, poverty, unemployment, gender discrimination, and bullying must also be fought to realize Dr. King’s vision of equality and respect for all.

“While King is best known for his efforts to curb racism, his social justice efforts were actually far more extensive,” Ms. Perry-Henry said. “Everyone is familiar with the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, but most people aren’t aware of how much he embodied an anti-war and anti-poverty stance as well as an anti-racism stance. Dr. King’s dream was about building a society based on simple justice that values the dignity and the worth of every human being. If he were alive today, his message would be the same.”

Moderated by Oak Bluffs resident Elizabeth Rawlins, a retired educator with a distinguished career that included serving as Dean of Simmons College, the after-dinner “Civil Rights Conversation” featured Lucy Hackney and Rose Styron, both of Vineyard Haven, who reflected on their decades as friends, neighbors, and comrades in civil and human rights efforts. Ms. Rawlins urged listeners to chime in with experiences and ideas, especially about what or who influences people to activism.

The daughter of Virginia Durr, an eminent civil rights activist, author, and champion of Rosa Parks, and prominent liberal and civil rights lawyer Clifford Durr, Ms. Hackney grew up in Alabama in an atmosphere of intense social consciousness and activism. Strongly influenced by this, it was natural for her to espouse humanitarian causes, she said. A lawyer and dedicated advocate for children, Ms. Hackney was on the board of and later employed by the Children’s Defense Fund, and currently serves on the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services board and the Grace Church Vestry.

Rose Styron, a journalist and poet, was a founding member of Amnesty International USA, and led study groups at the Harvard University Institute of Politics.”We became instant friends, we were all on the same wavelength,” said Ms. Styron. It was the mid-1960s, she said, and they were passionate about the anti-war effort and current politics. “The journey for justice we’re all on was based on friendship.”

Ms. Hackney and her husband, Sheldon, an author, educator and former university president, and Ms. Styron and her late husband, William, the renowned author, along with their families, became enduring friends.

Ms. Styron, who has been active with numerous social justice groups, added that she is now on the board of the Association to Benefit Children, which is chaired by her son, Tom, showing how humanitarian work can carry through generations.

Ms. Rawlins recollected that her activism took root when, as a young woman, she met the late Esther Burgess, an outspoken civil rights advocate and wife of John Burgess, the first Black Episcopal Bishop.

To Paddy Moore’s question about the involvement of today’s young people, Ms. Styron said she believed youths want to know about urgent world problems and “do something about it.” But Ms. Hackney said they lack the fervor of young people in the 1960s. They agreed that although many are active in the Occupy Movement, that effort remains too unfocused to be effective.

“People are having tough times no matter if they’re black, white, or yellow,” said Ms. Hackney. “We don’t have what we need in this country right now. Young people are looking at these kinds of things more than at world peace.”

“I’m an unemployed engineer, but I still have my dignity,” said audience member Richard Sands. “I still have value, I still have worth, I’m still a person!”

“We should encourage our children to join the NAACP!” declared Vera Shorter, long-standing member and national NAACP Living Legend Award recipient. She said the organization has helped spawn initiatives including the women’s and gay rights movements and can influence young people to get more involved. Past president Natalie Dickerson encouraged more communication with youngsters, finding out their hopes, not just telling them what they should do. Ms. Dickerson produces MVTV’s “Pathways to Your Success,” highlighting local achievers, which she said can inspire youths.

“As long as we identify ourselves as black or white we can never go beyond racism,” called out one listener. “On Martha’s Vineyard we can do away with racism, but our problem is national. There is a segment in this country that does not want this to happen! ”

Introducing this year’s Community Service Award recipients, volunteer Colleen Morris described them as “three local heroes in our midst” whose advocacy has made a great difference to the Island. Each came with a long list of community activities past and present.

“I accept this award on behalf of the other 70 volunteers who make the system work,” said Armen Hanjian, who has been coordinator of the Island Food Pantry for 15 years. Both Connie Texeira, a tireless advocate for homeless Islanders and Karen Achille, long-time public servant and current president of Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard and vice president of the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Living, challenged others to lend a hand.

“I urge you all to seek a cause in which you can volunteer,” wrote Ms. Achille in remarks read by past NAACP president Marie Allen. “It’s not only very good for our community, but will be very good for your soul.”

“I know you all have a heart for justice,” said Ms. Perry-Henry, as guests departed, well nourished with gourmet cuisine and rich food for thought. “There’s plenty of urgent work to be done. The more people we have standing up, the more things will change.”