‘We have work to do’: Aiken NAACP banquet a time for celebration, inspiration
USC Aiken was abuzz Friday night as the Aiken County Branch NAACP held its 37th annual Freedom Fund banquet.
The night – described by attendees and speakers alike as a time to be thankful, amiable and inspired – featured food and entertainment and enshrined a central “steadfast and immovable” theme.
Among the crowd were Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon; interim City Manager Stuart Bedenbaugh; City Council member Gail Diggs; state Rep. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken; USC Aiken Chancellor Sandra Jordan; James Gallman Sr., a NAACP national board member; and Eugene White Jr., the Aiken County Branch NAACP president.
Friday’s event, hailed as the branch’s premiere fundraiser, celebration and thank you, began with an invocation and greetings, which were succeeded by dinner and, eventually, an award ceremony.
Between all that, though, cut a keynote speech delivered by Dr. Hazel N. Dukes, the president of the New York State Conference NAACP. Dukes is also a NAACP national board member.
Dukes, a Montgomery, Alabama native, ruled over the ceremony Friday night for a good 20 minutes, delivering a striking speech that touched on topics both contemporary and historically relevant.
“We have work to do,” Dukes said, later adding: “If you’re a no good Democrat, we don’t want you. If you’re a no good Republican, we don’t want you. ... Stay woke.”
Dukes, who was described as a dynamic orator, addressed voter suppression, public education and even the clean water issue in Flint, Michigan. A glancing reference to the recent Starbucks arrest incident – where two black men were arrested while waiting in a Philadelphia location – received a collective grown from the audience. A reference to the Confederate flag coming down from the Statehouse was applauded.
In a pre-speech interview, Dukes said the removal of the Confederate flag was “a signal.”
And she said she’s dealt with signals before: “I know the whole routine of going in the back door.”
Dukes recounted, before her speech, what it was like growing up segregated and growing up resisting it.
“We fought the battle that we can go into hotels and counters,” Dukes said, referencing the NAACP as a whole, “and yet still you are not treated with respect and dignity.”
The Aiken County Branch NAACP was founded in 1918, nine years after the national version came to order.
The NAACP established a national office in New York in 1910; Aiken County Branch NAACP membership can be traced back, with evidence, to the 1930s, according to the banquet program. The NAACP’s vision “is to ensure a society in which all individuals have equal rights without discrimination based on race,” according to the organization’s website.
Tracing that exact vein, Dukes said the country’s current political and racial climate is “ugly.”
“It’s not only towards African Americans, it’s just Americans in general,” Dukes said.
She compared the equality she and the NAACP want to a salad: Different colored peppers, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce deserve to exist harmoniously together, she said.
“We’re all different shades,” Dukes, who had last visited Aiken some 15 years ago, continued. “This organization is beautiful ... and that’s what America should be.”
Getting there will be tough, she admitted. But it starts with the youth, and in Aiken, she said, that won’t be a problem. When youth members and the under-18 crowd were asked to stand, large clusters of attendees did so. They, too, received a round of applause.
Dukes said youth empowerment is a NAACP tenet, a “game changer,” she later called it. The same goes for civic engagement.
“Local involvement is so important,” Dukes said. In both her interview and speech, Dukes said every Tuesday deserves to be an election day.
“And so this fight has not just been ourselves, it’s been for all Americans,” Dukes said. “Look at our history.”