The National Action Network (NAN) held its annual Keepers of the Dream Awards last night in New York City during a lavish star-studded affair held in the vaulted ball room of Cipriani Wall Street. Now in its 14th year, the NAN awards recognize those working to advance civil rights in a variety of sectors. The 2012 Keepers of the Dream gala attracted many high-profile celebrities on Wednesday who were drawn to support NAN’s cause of social change.
Music industry bigwigs Sylvia Rhone and L.A. Reid, and Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, were among the previous award recipients in attendance. Black luminaries such as Bob Johnson, founder of BET, and Dr. Michael Eric Dyson also cheered on as MSNBC anchor Tamron Hall introduced Bill Cosby as the first speaker.
The television legend warmed up the audience with good-natured humor while underscoring community upliftment as the inspiration for the gathering.
“Our children need to know that life is good to live. We have not bothered to put a message out to them, not enough… It’s about us. And it’s about us saying it’s about time,” Cosby passionately implored. “We need someone to explain life to these children, and life means [a] future.”
The comic and bestselling author of course gave some side-splitting advice to help adults convey that message.
“Explain it to them. Talk to your children. And if they so much as try to tell you something about life, and you’ve got thirty years on ‘em? Yeah, I know they’ve got 911,” he said as the audience laughed. “They will dial 911. Break his arm. Now you know I didn’t mean that, but…
“Say the police come,” Cosby continued. “They say, ‘who said what?’ And sometimes, if you’re slow and calm, they’ll take the kid. If you explain it correctly, they will take the kid.”
Before leaving the stage, the storied entertainer entreated the assemblage to intervene in the lives of young people, stating: “Ladies and gentlemen, the call is now… Come on team!”
“I’m preaching now, Bill,” Rev. Sharpton said upon taking Cosby’s place at the lectern. Rev. Sharpton, founder and president of NAN, then described the Keepers of the Dream Awards as a living monument to Dr. Martin Luther King. Those nominated reflect the ideals King lived and died for by continuing his work of equalizing the social structures that cause oppression.
Sharpton also took a moment to remember his mother, Mrs. Ada Sharpton, who died three weeks ago. He told the crowd that her influence made the minister the man his is today.
“She also raised me to believe that you have more responsibility than for [your] own success,” the reverend said of his late mother. “We honor people every year that are exceptional not because of what they have done for themselves, but what they’ve done for more than themselves. If your success is only based on what you own, and what you achieve, and what status you have, then your success is temporary at best, because no one cares how well you are doing if you’re not doing well enough to help more than yourself.
“Martin Luther King is remembered many years later, because he made a difference,” Sharpton added. “We remember King, because he stood in the gap, and made a difference for everyone else. We’ve chosen some individuals who we think have made a difference, a difference they did not have to make, but a difference they chose to make. We want them to know that we have watched them, and we appreciate it, because there are so few that made that difference.”
Karla Ballard, the first leader awarded, is the Chief of Strategic Development, Media and National Partnerships for One Economy, a non-profit dedicated to bringing technology and digital opportunities to the underserved.
“This is beyond an honor to me. When you receive these kinds of honors, you realize there is no way that you can do these things on your own,” Ballard shared. “I can easily say that I stand on some amazing shoulders — definitely in the civil rights movement[.]”
Richard Parsons, now the Chairman of Citigroup, made history as the Chairman and CEO of Time Warner — becoming one of the first African-Americans to head a billion-dollar company. He applauded Sharpton’s 40 years of service through activism as he received his Keepers of the Dream award.
“Al has been out here for all these years, doing his thing. I haven’t always agreed with every position he’s taken, but I’ve always admired the integrity, the persistence, the resilience, the commitment to the pursuit of justice,” Parsons said.
“I’m sorry that Denzel could not be here tonight, but he is here, because I’m here,” Pauletta Washington said when she accepted the award — both for herself and her husband, Denzel. The Washingtons were acknowledged for years of dedication to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America among many other causes.
“I’ve witnessed great progress in our society, but there is still so much more to be done,” Washington said of her charity work with her spouse. “I applaud and I appreciate you Rev. Al and the National Action Network for all your tireless work. You are successful because of your heart and because you don’t give up. I pray that we do not become too comfortable resting on our accomplishments, because there are still… things of God that need to be expressed through us.”
Doug Morris, the CEO of Sony Music Entertainment, was also awarded for being instrumental to the integration of the music business on executive levels. He has notably helped artists and producers such as L.A. Reid gain tangible power in their industry.
John Legend, an artist on Sony, serenaded the audience to help his label boss celebrate his big win after the acceptance speeches.
The National Action Network is a civil rights organization that works through the grassroots participation of its members to fight inequality. The organization works out of 47 offices across America, and receives no government contributions.
Last night’s gala was not only staged to salute these great activists — it was also organized to raise the funds that enable NAN to work on behalf of the dispossessed, such as Trayvon Martin and his family. Sharpton asked the audience to give to NAN to support its continuing efforts to help where needed across the country.
“Many of you will never go to a march, or a rally, but you can support those that do,” Sharpton elaborated, “the people we have to pay every week to do the work that protects all of us.”
For the hundreds in attendance yesterday evening, the National Action Network was a cause worth fêting for.
(Rev. Al Sharpton is the host of Politics Nation. Tamron Hall is the host of News Nation. Both shows air on MSNBC. MSNBC is part of NBC News, a subset of NBCUniversal, which is the parent company of theGrio.)
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb