The theme of the annual Charleston Branch NAACP Gala was solidarity between African Americans and Jews, something organizers wanted to emphasize long before the mass shooting that killed 11 and injured six Oct. 27 in Pittsburgh.
After all, the NAACP was started in 1909 by a group that included one prominent Jew, Henry Moscowitz, and the organization received critical administrative and financial support from Jews early on and throughout the years.
Among the people receiving special tributes Saturday were attorney Armand Derfner, banquet chairwoman Janet Segal. Speakers included Judi Corsaro, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Charleston, and Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum of Synagogue Emanu-El, who offered the benediction.
Federal Judge Richard Gergel introduced the keynote speaker, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who made reference to the relationship between blacks and Jews.
“It is a sad confluence of events that just a week after the terrible massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, we gather here in Charleston — another city that has been struck by unthinkable gun violence — to celebrate the Jewish and African-American founders of this storied and irreplaceable organization,” Holder said.
“We are at a moment in America when our institutions — our democratic systems, our values — are being tested. We are once again at a time in our nation when we need to band together to eradicate hatred and work together to advance the cause of civil rights. We must resist those who would try to put asunder the historic Jewish/black alliance that has meant so much in the fight for equality for both groups.”
Holder returned to Charleston just ahead Election Day to beseech those at the banquet to rescue democracy by voting Tuesday, by resisting bigotry and injustice, and by recommitting to a long-term effort to improve the nation.
“This new era of ‘American Engagement’ must not merely be a moment, it must become a movement,” he said. “It is time again for this nation to seek a new birth of freedom and of equality.”
Early in his remarks, Holder expressed regret over his choice of words when at an Oct. 7 campaign appearance in Georgia where he said of the Republican Party’s tactics, “When they go low, we kick 'em. That’s what this new Democratic Party is about."
He did not back away from the comment.
“I was, of course, speaking metaphorically and not advocating violence,” he said. “I also said on that same occasion that we should not do anything inappropriate or illegal. The words I used have now become part of an effort to stir-up fake outrage from the right-wing echo chamber about ‘Democratic mobs.’ They have also been turned into short-hand for a debate about civility in our politics. In hindsight, I might have chosen different specific words, but I stand behind the sentiment.”
Holder, who is reported to be contemplating a run for president, quickly turned to the subject of America’s struggle to overcome injustice.
“Though Jim Clark and Bull Connor are gone, the age of bullies and bigots is not fully behind us,” Holder said. “The president is trying to divide this great nation of ours. He stokes fear and anger through dangerous and inflammatory rhetoric so that we point fingers at one another instead of creating the necessary trust in the humanity of our fellow Americans.”
Citing Martin Luther King Jr., he praised those “who refuse to give in to fear and frustration,” and instead fight for equality and reach out to others in need, who protest gun violence and sexual assault, who push back against voting restrictions and other efforts to disenfranchise American citizens.
Voting is a right, not a privilege, Holder said.
“Yet, in many communities today, including here in South Carolina, our political system is far from fair,” he said. “There has been a systematic effort to cripple our democracy and disenfranchise those who may not subscribe to certain political views. It has been rigged through racial and partisan gerrymandering. Our democracy has been impaired by provably false claims of widespread voter fraud. And it’s been undermined through shameless acts of voter and political suppression.”
In attendance at the banquet were many activists, educators and civic leaders, including state representatives James Smith and Mandy Powers-Norrell, who are running for governor and lieutenant governor; and Joe Cunningham, who is running for U.S. Congress in S.C. District 1.
The candidates were acknowledged by S.C. Sen Marlon Kimpson, who called for more opportunities for black entrepreneurs, gun reform and more, and implored those in attendance to vote.
“It’s gonna be a great day in South Carolina come Wednesday morning,” Kimpson said.
Others receiving honors from the NAACP were community activist Johanna Martin-Carrington, former Charleston County school board member Hillery Douglas, Judge Bernard Fielding, North Charleston Police Chief Reggie Burgess, NAACP volunteer Lorraine Walker, Meeting Street Academy and Morris Brown AME Church.