In the late 1950s William E.B. Du Bois, leading black intellectual who was by this time a professed member of the American Communist Party, was invited to speak at Howard University. A public flap occurred but Mordecai W. Johnson, the university president, would not rescind the invitation. Johnson listened to Du Bois from a front row seat in the university chapel. After the lecture Johnson told Du Bois, "I see you have not lost your gift for insulting people."
That's glimpse of two men who in their lifetimes shared some moments and some disagreements, but who both achieved the status of Spingarn medalists. The Spingarn Medal is the most prestigious award given to black Americans by a predominately black group. It has been awarded each year for the last six decades by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Established by the NAACP in 1914 at a time when there were few rewards for being black in America, the list of Spingarn recipients reads like a Who's Who: from George Washington Carver to Mary McLeod Bethune to Alvin Ailey. last night in New York City, Andrew Young, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, became the 63rd Spingarn Medalist.
Young received the award at the NAACP's annual Fellowship Dinner at the Americana Hotel, where the nearly 1,000 guests included eight previous Spingarn recipients.
One of them, former HUD secretary Robert C. Weaver, responded to Young who before the dinner had told a press conference he was "embarrassed that I now find myself in the illustrious company" of medalwinners.
Weaver said to Young: "You told us that you were honored to be included in the group, but I want you to know that the group is honored to be in your presence."
Young was cited for the "deftness with which he has handled relations between this nation and other countries" as U.N. ambassador and for "his forthrightness in expressing personal concern for human rights, and especially for the major role he has filled in raising the consciousness of American citizens to the problems of various African nationals..."
All evening long, he was surrounded by well-wishers, many of whom defended his well-known outspokenness. NAACP Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks said, "Andy, you know you speak so much truth... people sometimes get angry with you, but that's why we pay you -- to keep telling the truth."
Before the dinner, Young praised the NAACP for having fought "for the progress of all Americans, black and white."
The history of the Spingarn Medal serves as an indicator of some black progress, and the tides of black activism and philosophy. The first recipient, scientist Ernest E. Just, was a shy, consummate professional who taught at Howard University for 30 years. He presented an unquestionable positive image in 1915, the same year that the film "Birth of a Nation," which many blacks considered racist, was released. In the 1930s, the NAACP indicated the need for black institutions and guaranteed quality education by saluting educators, including Robert Moton and William T.B Williams of Tuskegee Institute, Mary Bethune of Bethune-Cookman College and John Hope of Atlanta University. In the mid-1940s, as the NAACP stepped up its protest against job discrimination, they saluted a man who brought the problems straight to Washington, A. Philip Randolph, and a man who guided the battles through the courts, Thrugood Marshall.
In the 1950s, when direct action began to lay the groundwork for the sweeping civil rights laws of the next decade, the medal named for Joel E. Spingarn, longtime NAACP board chairman, went to Martin Luther King in 1957, and Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine in 1958. Though the personalities who shaped the cultural and political nationalism of the 1960s were overlooked, a political achievement was noted with Edward Brooke's citation in 1967. That was the year he became the first black elected to the Senate since Reconstruction.
The only artist ever to receive the Spingarn, Jacob Lawrence, remembers the occasion as a touching one. "The Spingarn meant a lot to me since my first inspiration came from the black community," says Lawrence, a professor of art at the University of Washington, Seattle. "The ceremony took place at a NAACP convention and I looked out over the grass roots assembled and it was wonderful. I think that's one of the finest parts of the honor, that it represents the feelings of all strata of the black community."
In recent years, complaints have surfaced that the selection committee, a nine-member committee chosen from the NAACP's 64-member board, has become more publiclty and politically-motivated Last year's honoree was Alex Haley, who was certainly the focus of a media blitz with his family history, "Roots." But he unquestionably instulled pride in black Americans and raised some appetite in whites about their own genealogy.