Today’s blog post was written by Daria Labinsky, Archivist at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library.
When you work in an archives, you frequently discover amazing events that make you wish for a time machine (and a guest pass). One such event took place at the White House on February 23, 1979, when President Jimmy and First Lady Rosalynn Carter presented Living Legacy Awards to Black elders for achievements in the areas of art, education, medicine, business, politics, religion, and other fields. In addition to being barrier breakers in their professions, many of the recipients were also dedicated, long-time civil rights activists.
The Living Legacy Awards were created by the National Caucus on the Black Aged (NCBA), today the National Caucus and Center on Black Aging. Founded in 1970, the NCBA is a national nonprofit organization that focuses on issues impacting Black people age 50 & over, such as affordable health care and housing. Caucus Chairman Aaron Henry oversaw the awards presentation.
Louis Martin, Special Assistant to the President for Minority Affairs, and Nelson H. Cruikshank, Chairman of the Federal Council on Aging and Counselor to the President on Aging, urged the Carters to “support this endeavor by hosting a luncheon.” One initial idea was to “let Rosalynn sponsor the lunch with possible drop by of the President.” Rosalynn Carter responded, “This sounds like a good idea. I don’t mind, if Jimmy approves.”
Not only did President Carter approve, he paid tribute to all 17 honorees as he introduced them, and the American Presidency Project website contains his remarks from the ceremony.
Carter first spoke of his support for the Caucus, their awards and the NCBA’s name, observing,
“I think “national” is really a little too narrow in scope. If there ever was an event that has international overtones, I would say it is this one, because distinguished black Americans have not only been an inspiration to the people of the United States of America, they have set an example of leadership, dedication, courage, and achievement that’s an inspiration throughout the world.”
He then addressed the award winners, and here are excerpts from his remarks (with the original descriptions from our Staff Secretary’s Collection in boldface).
Augustus Hawkins – Democratic Congressman from Los Angeles. Active in California politics until elected to Congress in 1962. Native of Louisiana. Age: 72.
… “a great and distinguished leader of the Congress, a man who’s being honored today because of his accomplishments in one of the most aged professions, and that is politics, a man … whose name has been associated with notable achievements in congressional history … .”
The Rev. Dr. Gloster Current – Bishop, New York Conference of United Methodist Church. Active in NAACP. Native of Indianapolis. Age: 66.
“ … a man who, when he stands, brings a lot of smiles on the faces of people who know him. A bright, invigorating personality, a great sense of humor, a natural leader, active in the NAACP since its early days … he has been a religious leader throughout his adult life, has never even known the definition of the word “retirement …”
Septima Poinsette Clark – Prominent educator, M.A. from Hampton Institute; taught in Charleston, S. C., schools; active in civil rights which resulted in losing her job and retirement pay. Active in Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Age: 81.
“She exemplifies, as do many of those who are being honored today, a special courage that was required when she spoke out so courageously for the impetus in the early years of the civil rights movement.”
Dr. W. Montague Cobb – A medical doctor, medical educator, editor, professor of Anatomy at Howard University Medical School. Native of Washington, D.C. Age: 75.
“I think everyone knows the importance … to have superb professional training in the service of black people when adequate education opportunities, adequate social services, adequate medical care was not available, when it required a special degree of dedication because of the extremely burdensome responsibilities… . We also know how difficult it must have been at the time, when one was a student, to get a doctorate in medicine.”
Jesse Owens – Former Olympic and collegiate track star. First athlete to win four gold medals in one Olympiad (Berlin, 1936). Native of Alabama. Age: 65.
“Nineteen hundred and thirty-six was the year when Hitler was spouting the philosophy of racial superiority. The Olympics were being held in Germany, and it was a time in our own country when it was difficult for black athletic ability to be adequately recognized. There were no professional black baseball players in the American and National Leagues; professional teams excluded our own citizens. But a young man who possibly didn’t even realize the superb nature of his own capabilities went to the Olympics and performed in a way that I don’t believe has ever been equaled since.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Sr. – Pastor, Ebenezer Baptist Church (Atlanta, Georgia). Father of the late Martin Luther King Jr. Founding member, Atlanta NAACP. Native of Georgia. Age: 80. (He also gave the luncheon invocation.)
“I look on Dr. King not only from the perspective of a distinguished American honored by a President, but I look on him in many ways as a son would look on a father. … I have observed him and his most distinguished family being a beacon light of truth and integrity, of distinguished service, of inspiration to me, to many others in this country, and indeed throughout the world.”
Dorothy Maynor – Concert singer from Norfolk, Virginia. Discovered by Serge Koussevitsky in 1939, sang in concerts for 25 years all over the world. On retirement, founded Harlem School of Arts to aid youngsters. Age: 69.
“Sometimes she was permitted to sing in foreign countries when it was very difficult for her to find a stage or an audience where she could demonstrate her superb ability here in her own country. This took a special dedication and an extraordinary talent to overcome the obstacles that were placed in her path. … In every aspect of life, hers has been admirable.”
Dr. Benjamin Mays – President emeritus of Morehouse College. Past President, United Negro College Fund. Native of South Carolina. Age: 84.
“ … he produced, through his inspirational leadership, wisdom, confidence in struggling young black Americans, leaders that indeed have inspired us and have been a great satisfaction to him as well; still very active in his commitment to the preservation of the character and the quality and the service of the predominantly black colleges, the historical black colleges and universities of our country.”
Rosa Parks – Sparked Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in 1955. Formerly State Secretary, Alabama NAACP. Native of Alabama. Age: 66.
“ … knowing the Deep South as I do … and looking back 20, 25 years, the courage that she showed is truly overwhelming. And I know that all of you realize that it was her insistence that she would show the rights of black Americans in an understandable way, a simple way, that aroused a nation eventually to accept those rights as a part of American life, and to correct ancient discriminatory actions even under the guise of American law.”
A. Philip Randolph – Organized Brotherhood of Sleeping Car porters in 1925. Vice President of AFL-CIO. Organized first march on Washington for civil rights (1941). Native of Florida. Age: 90. (Bayard Rustin accepted the award for him.)
“I think that throughout the earliest days … there was a sense throughout our Nation that A. Philip Randolph stood for higher aspirations and equality of black Americans. … I think that those who came later obviously saw him as having set a courageous example to be emulated. And Bayard, I hope that you will extend to Mr. Randolph my appreciation, recognition, and my friendship for the superb leadership that he gave many of those others who are being honored here in the White House this afternoon.”
Dr. Robert Weaver – Economist, educator, public administrator. Former Secretary of HUD. Professor of Urban Affairs, Hunter College. Native of Washington, D.C.
“In government, it’s been indeed rare when a black American could become a member of the Cabinet of a President of the United States. … Dr. Weaver has been an innovator. He’s been a credit to our country in every sense of the word, in every job that’s been assigned to him.”
Asa Spaulding – President, North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Served on Board of Trustees of Howard University. Native of North Carolina. Age: 75.
“ … in his position of leadership in his own State and throughout the South, he’s been a strong, active supporter and has added the financial strength and the prominence of his own achievements to the success of many of those who struggled to give black Americans their long overdue civil rights.”
Roy Wilkins – Long-time Executive Director, NAACP. Prominent in civil rights activities. Native of St. Louis. Age: 78.
“In times of discouragement and despair, he never lost his commitment nor his dedication nor his confidence that the right could ultimately prevail in a society of free men and women. And it’s an honor for me, as President, to recognize again a man who’s being honored by you in the field of civil rights, which has touched the life of every person here.”
Other recipients of the Living Legacy Awards were author Margaret Walker Alexander, journalist Malvin Goode, photographer James Van Derzee, and minister Dr. Charles Wesley.
President Carter concluded:
“This is a day of privilege for us to share with you this occasion. And it’s a day of inspiration to have these potentially unsung heroes recognized, in many instances perhaps a little bit late, but the correction of this mistake by the action of the National Caucus on Black Aged has been a very well chosen decision. And my wife, Rosalynn, and I, all those who serve in our Government are pleased that we could be a part of such a wonderful and inspirational occasion.”
Thanks to the staff of the Presidential Libraries and Walter P. Reuther Library who contributed images from their collections for this article.