Eight years after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in 1909, the group began to promote the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as the “Negro national anthem.”
So it was wholly fitting that, early during the Freedom Fund Awards Luncheon of the Flagler County Branch of the NAACP on Saturday Oct. 8, the 180 attendees of the $75-a-plate luncheon communally sang the anthem.
And it was fitting that keynote speaker Leon W. Russell, the chair of the NAACP National Board of Directors, opened his talk by quoting some of the lyrics penned by James Weldon Johnson – before Russell delivered a passionate yet calm and surgical rebuke of the “stop woke” set without ever mentioning the Stop-Woker-in-Chief, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“Public policy can kill you,” Russell said during his talk, speaking neither metaphorically nor histrionically.
The luncheon, held at the African American Cultural Society building on U.S. 1 in Palm Coast, balanced matters both festive and somber, both triumphant and cautionary. The six-member Flagler Palm Coast High School Jazz Ensemble performed a lively set, then 12-year-old Jaiyse Williams sang Sam Cooke’s 1964 Civil Rights-inspired classic “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Shelley Ragsdale, president of the Flagler County NAACP Branch, introduced 81-year-old Palm Coast resident and member Barbara Goss by noting she had been involved with the NAACP since she was 13 and growing up in the Midwest, and that she had worked at the national NAACP office in New York City during the 1960s alongside such Civil Rights titans as Thurgood Marshall, Roy Wilkins and Medgar Evers.
Goss, who moved to Palm Coast in 2003, took the podium to detail how nine years ago “the Supreme Court eviscerated the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” then noted, “today our struggle is greater than ever.” She then gave her phone number to the audience in case anyone may need a ride to the polls during the upcoming election.
Featured speakers included Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin, Bunnell City Manager Alvin B. Jackson, Flagler NAACP Past President Linda Sharpe Andy, African American Cultural Society President Joe Matthews, Division Chief David Williams of the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, Bunnell Police Chief Dave Brannon and others. Awards were presented to the branch’s executive committee and other members in recognition of their community service.
But it was Russell, currently a Tampa resident who served 35 years as the director of the Office of Human Rights for Pinellas County in Clearwater, and who has served on the NAACP’s National Board of Directors since 1990 in various roles, who commanded the crowd, weaving the word “woke” throughout his 30-minute talk – a talk that was all the more scathing because Russell didn’t resort to any histrionic tone.
“I need to know that folks in Flagler County are awake, that they’re not scared of being woke,” Russell said early in his speech after referencing the lyrics “God of our weary years” and “God of our silent tears” from “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
“Woke is not a bad word, because being awake means that you’re not dead, you’re not asleep, you see what’s going on, you understand that there is a responsibility to correct what’s going on and that you know you have to be part of the solution,” Russell said. “You came (to this dinner) because you are committed to the mission and vision of this association, which is to create an inclusive society, one in which discrimination and race-based prejudice no longer exist as a part of our way of life.
“It is important for us to know that as much as things have changed, unless we awake from our slumber, we may be forced to relive some very, very dark history. Part of being woke means understanding what the challenges are and why those challenges have to be met.”
Russell’s talk featured two main themes: Activism gains strength through numbers, and the power of the vote is necessary and effective to accomplish change.
“As a local unit of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, it is extremely important that you recognize that none of us can make things work by ourselves,” he said. “Things don’t get done if we are perpetually a committee of one. We cannot be successful.
“As supportive as the superintendent of schools may be, you have an obligation to inform your community about the educational issues in this community, about the amount of support that your educational system needs, about the amount of support that your teachers need. It amazes me across this country that we continue to bemoan the fact that teachers at the beginning of every school year go into Walmart and Target and spend their own money buying supplies because we as a community refuse to demand adequate support for our classroom teachers.
“We have to be a part of the policy-making apparatus. We can’t allow other people to make policy for us. We’ve got to engage. All of us can’t be a member of the school board, but we can darn sure make sure that we elect people to the school board who understand the needs of our young people and who are ready to support policies and programs that will enhance their lives and have them be woken up.”
When Russell noted “We have to recognize that we cannot ban books” (in schools), the audience erupted in enthusiastic applause, the aftershock of Flagler County’s own sordid experience with book-banning last year.
Russell called for NAACP branches to establish and utilize committees focusing on education, economic development, health, youth engagement and voting.
“We need to stop saying that young folks, these folks right here, are our future,” Russell said, gesturing to Jaiyse Williams as well as members of the branch’s Youth Council, including its president Krishna Louis, who were in attendance. “They are part of our present. We have to give them the opportunity to help us make this community a better place for all of us.”
Russell took on DeSantis’s “Stop Woke Act,” which is facing numerous legal challenges, without noting the law or the governor by name.
“It is state law that African-American history be taught in schools,” Russell said. “Yet we have public policy-makers who want us to water it down – ‘We don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. Somebody might get shamed and it be a problem.’ But nothing in this country that has been fixed ever got fixed by ignoring the problem. We got to be woke. We got to be aware. You can’t be dead . . . .”
“We have to be woke to opportunities. We have to be woke to the fact that we don’t exist in our own little bubbles. We have to understand that what we do or don’t do can impact the lives of other people. We have to also understand that public policy can impact the lives of ourselves and other people. We have to be woke to the fact that sometimes we have to make a sacrifice in order to ensure that the rest of us can survive. Public policy implemented by people who have no interest in the people they serve, will kill. Public policy can kill you. Public policy carried out in the wrong ways will kill people.”
Russell did allow one exception to his strength-through-committees credo.
“When you work together, you have the power to make real, viable, valuable change for your community,” he said. “Your primary tool for doing that is exercising your vote. Elections have consequences. You don’t get an Alvin Jackson unless you elect the right kind of city council. You won’t get a commander in the sheriff’s office unless you elect a sheriff who has sense enough to see the resource in the community and lift it up. It doesn’t happen just by osmosis. You’ve got to use the power of the vote to make the difference.
“This is the only time that I am willing to abide a committee of one. You need to nominate yourself as a committee of one to tell everybody else in your community, in your family, in your household, in your neighborhood the importance of exercising a franchise that was paid for with blood. Understand very clearly that people would not be working so hard to suppress your vote if voting wasn’t important.”
Without exhorting his audience to follow, Russell led an impromptu call-and-response in which attendees intuitively echoed each word as he boomed “Together. Power. Vote.”
For anyone who may claim Russell was preaching to the choir, it should be noted he also chided the choir: “So I need you, Flagler County, to be woke. I need you to be engaged not just by coming to this luncheon because you like salmon and fish. It’s good to have 180 people in here but it’d be even better if y’all showed up at a branch meeting one time” – to which the crowd erupted with hearty applause and laughter.
“So I challenge you – be woke,” Russell said. “Together, power, vote.”
Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin opened his address not by quoting Martin Luther King Jr., but by quoting the civil rights leaders’ wife: “Coretta Scott King once said ‘The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.’ She is wholly accurate, and the greatness of Palm Coast is in large part due to the actions of the people in this room . . . I want to acknowledge the many welcoming occasions that I’ve met with members of your organization. Each of you has challenged and inspired me with your conviction in the strength of the future of our city. Our trust and respect for each other motivates our community to feel confident, live and work together without conflict, and see each other as legitimate and worthy . . . .
“The difference between ‘try’ and ‘triumph’ is a little ‘umph.’ Everyone in this room has a little ‘umph’ to triumph by standing beside each other. You have my word that I will remain by your side to ensure that we triumph in our opportunities for long-term careers, new businesses and leadership roles.”
Bunnell City Manager Alvin B. Jackson echoed Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon “The Drum Major Instinct,” which MLK preached from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church just two months before his assassination.
“We want to applaud the NAACP for what they do every day,” Jackson said. “They are truly a drum major for justice and engagement within our community. Bunnell has experienced this engagement and this partnership with President Ragsdale and the NAACP on some challenging issues.
“It’s all about service. At the end of the day, it’s about the lives and people that you truly touch and you make a difference. It’s about improving individuals’ quality of life and liberty. I can tell you that this organization has done that. Not only from a social advocacy standpoint, but also from the standpoint of economic empowerment and political and educational issues.”
Linda Sharpe Andy, past president of the Flagler County NAACP, told the audience: “If you go to any major news source, you see we are in troubled times . . . President Shelley Ragsdale can tell you that his office gets an abundance of phone calls on a daily basis from people asking for assistance because of things that are going on in Flagler County.
“If that change is gonna come, it will have to come from organizations like the NAACP, who are out there on the forefront trying to eliminate disparate treatment, racial inequities, gender bias and so forth. Flagler County deserves an NAACP and needs an NAACP.”
The Flagler branch, which was founded in 1986, recognized members as well as its executive committee for their community service, including: Gail Danhoff, Carol Gaines, Krishna Louis, David Snell (assistant treasurer), Reinhold Schlieper (treasurer), William McLeod, Chauncey Dunham, First Vice President Phyllis Pearson, Barbara Goss (special consultant to the president), Linda Sharpe Andy, Sonia White (membership chair), John White, David Williams of the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, Second Vice President Blanche Valentine, Sharon Tilghman (community volunteer) and Showing Up for Racial Justice members Sara Riley and Cynthia Dodzik.
David Ayres, President of Flagler Broadcasting, was recognized for his contributions. WNZF, one of Flagler Broadcasting’s radio stations, is home to Ragsdale’s weekly show called “Common Ground.”
Ragsdale was presented the NAACP Diamond Life Award and William Andy was presented the NAACP Silver Life Award for longtime service to the organization.
Russell was presented an NAACP Chairman’s Award for his many years of service to the organization.
–Rick de Yampert for FlaglerLive
Shelley Ragsdale says
Hello FlaglerLive and Flagler County, I’d like to take this opportunity to express My and Our sincere gratitude for the gracious and accurate reporting of our NAACP Flagler County Branch 5147-B Freedom Fund Awards Luncheon this past Saturday October 8th. It was a rewarding event and the passion of those who attended was on display.
As president of this branch, I applaud the efforts of all attendees, which included – Political appointees, County Elected officials, Superintendent of Schools, Mayors, Political Candidates, Law Enforcement Officials, etc., and the FlaglerLive’s Rick de Yampert for FlaglerLive for his expert coverage.
Shelley T. Ragsdale
NAACP Flagler Branch -President
Bill C says
Amen and Halleluiah! Woke is being in touch, not oblivious . What’s the opposite of woke- sleep walking in a stupor like a drug addict? Feels good at the time but never works out in the long run.
I’ve never understood how some people think “woke” is an inferior state of being unless perhaps they suffer from insomnia.
Pete Masters says
… And cue the Trump cultists’ whiny cries. Tells us guys, where did the interwebs touch and hurt you?
Pissed in PC says
He is so very correct. We’re about to lose our democracy if people don’t wake up and see the rampant racism coming from the far right. The dog whistles, calling for people of color and Jews being the problem to society that wants to replace whites and take your jobs, property and life. The far right has embraced Putin, Orban and the Hitler. Putin is conscripting troops in the poorest of immigrant areas basically as an ethnic cleaning/genocide. Orban doesn’t want any immigration from people of color and we know what Hitler did to the Jews and his burning of books.
DeSantis embraces the Nazi’s that show up to his events instead of denouncing them. He’s had laws passed to whitewash the history of slavery, forcing Indians to live on reservations cause the white man wanted his land.
We got rid of 1 batshit crazy member on the school board and the other was rejected by the voters of Flagler county as a commissioner, neither racists will be missed but can still pose a problem. Now we got to make sure Courtney VandeBundt elected as Will Furry is another history denier. Unfortunately we got stuck with Christy Chong that is a mini Jill Woolbright.
We also need to make sure we vote out the likes of DeSantis, Ashley Moody. Waltz and Marco Rubio as they don’t stand for democracy but authoritarianism.
This could be our last election if we allow these people to stay in office.