The YWCA of Greater Charleston announced today the recipients of the 2013 Harvey Gantt Triumph Award, given to people who have made a positive impact on civil rights.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who was among the most prominent leaders of the civil rights movement in the South, and South Carolina AFL-CIO President Emeritus Donna S. Dewitt, a civil rights and union organizer, will be honored during the Tri-County Ecumenical Service, scheduled for 4 p.m. Jan. 27 at Morris Street Baptist Church, 25 Morris St.
The service and award ceremony is part of the 41st annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, sponsored by the YWCA.
The Harvey Gantt award will be presented to Lewis and Dewitt by U.S. Rep. James Clyburn and newly elected state AFL-CIO President Ken Riley. Lewis will give the keynote address.
Last year, Ted Kennedy was posthumously awarded the prize, and his son Patrick Kennedy came to Charleston to receive it.
Lewis said he was honored by the recognition and glad for the opportunity to visit the Lowcountry.
“I love Charleston,” he said, “the history, the atmosphere, the people. I love coming almost as a tourist.”
Lewis was a young activist from Alabama thinking about becoming a preacher when he joined others to overturn the race laws in the Deep South.
He was a “Freedom Rider” who challenged segregation on the interstate, became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, gave an important speech at the 1963 March on Washington, and led the Selma-to-Montgomery march.
He was twice beaten so badly, once in Rock Hill as a Freedom Rider in 1961 and once during the first Selma march attempt (Bloody Sunday) in 1965, that he required hospitalization.
He said it’s important to celebrate the victories of the 1960s. “But there are other battles that we must fight and that we must conquer, in spite of all the progress.” The U.S. has seen dramatic changes in recent decades, “but there is still an unbelievable amount of poverty.”
Today, race is less important than class, Lewis said.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Latino. Our obligation and responsibility during the next few years is trying to build a powerful coalition between people” — of different economic classes, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and faith traditions — “to look out for the common good. We all live in the ‘American house’ together.”
The lessons of the civil rights movement still have force, Lewis said.
“Those of us who came out of the movement, we have an obligation to continue to teach and preach ... the way of peace the way of love, the way of respecting the dignity of every human being.”
What’s needed now is leadership, people willing to take risks, to put their political careers on the line in the interest of cooperation and advancing the public good, he said.
Dewitt, 64, said civil rights and labor rights always have been inexorably intertwined, and the right to organize is essential for economic justice.
States, including South Carolina, give too much away in the form of tax incentives and privatization, she said. A lesson she learned long ago was, “You never give away your taxes.” Instead, you provide good services, build a solid infrastructure and create an atmosphere in which business can thrive.
“Government’s ours,” Dewitt said. “If we privatize everything and it goes belly up, we’ve lost everything. ... But if we own it, we can fix it. It may take a while, but we can do it.”
She said she was pleased to learn from Gantt Triumph Award chairman Clay Middleton that she was a recipient of the annual recognition.
“I was really humbled, because there are so many unsung heroes in South Carolina that just continually struggle.”
The MLK Celebration also will include several worship services at area churches and synagogues, as well as the annual MLK Business and Professional Breakfast, set for 7:30 a.m. Jan. 15 at the College of Charleston’s TD Arena, 301 Meeting St.
The keynote speaker for the breakfast will be Eva Tansky Blum, senior vice president of PNC Bank in Pittsburgh.
Also planned is a panel discussion called “Remembering the Civil Rights Movement from the Black and Jewish Perspective, Part II.” It is scheduled for 7 p.m. Jan. 17 at Brith Sholom Beth Israel, 182 Rutledge Avenue.
The theme of the MLK Celebration is “Working for the American Dream,” which is meant to extol the virtues of hard work, according to a YWCA news release.
It is in keeping with King’s efforts during the last phase of his activism, before he was assassinated. During the late 1960s, King launched the Poor People’s Campaign and spoke openly about economic injustice.
YWCA Executive Director Kathleen Rodgers said the hard-working poor are typically misrepresented.
“Images that widely cast women, minorities, low- and middle-income working families, the elderly and the young as less productive and therefore less American are just simply wrong and ill-conceived,” she said. “Dr. King’s life example counters these myths with the truth of how everyday Americans gave their very best efforts, even their lives, in order to protect and extend the American Dream. And much work remains to be done in this regard.”
The Harvey Gantt Triumph Award was introduced in 1983 in conjunction with the MLK Celebration. Gantt, who desegregated Clemson University in 1963 and went on to become the first black mayor of Charlotte, was its first recipient.
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