For many African-Americans living in the south in the years after slavery, inequality meant sometimes not having access to something as basic as a birth certificate. Today, many of those same Black citizens, who have since migrated to Pennsylvania, will not be able to vote in the 2012 presidential election thanks to the recently passed voter identification law requiring voters to present photo ID at the polls.

JUDGE GLENDA HATCHETT (Photo by J.L. Martello)

“I’m here this evening because of this ridiculous bill that’s been passed in Pennsylvania. They call it the voter ID bill; we call it the voter suppression bill,” said John Jordan, civic engagement director of the Pennsylvania NAACP, at a Pittsburgh branch dinner on May 3. “We’re going to show them the astronomical impact this will have.”

This recent development, coupled with the recent injustices of the national incident of Trayvon Martin and local incident of Jordan Miles, took center stage at the 56th Annual NAACP Human Rights Dinner held at the Omni William Penn Hotel. There, Jordan and Pittsburgh NAACP President M. Gayle Moss urged the crowd to join in their efforts to increase voter participation.

In conjunction with this year’s theme “Make An Impact: Confront the Inequality of Justice,” the NAACP recognized five local judges and two attorneys. The evening also saw the recognition of this year’s 15 NAACP scholarship recipients.

“I salute our talented 15. We simply need to cultivate a generation of learners who aren’t afraid to embark on the road that leads to success,” Moss said. “Here we are 2012 still without justice. We have to use the ballot.”

At this year’s annual NAACP dinner, guests weren’t sure if they had been transported to an Allegheny County courtroom or a Deep South schoolhouse. While the evening’s honored judges combined stories of today’s courtrooms with history lessons of the trailblazers who preceded them, none was more impassioned then keynote speaker Judge Glenda Hatchett.

“In a time when our hearts bleed for what we’ve seen, it’s not just about Trayvon Martin. It’s about generations of men, women and children who have suffered because of the injustices in this society. I understand that we are here because folks have suffered for us to be here,” Hatchett said. “Yes, Trayvon Martin stirred the consciousness of this nation, but the question is, what are we doing on the front end to invest in the future of our children?”

Hatchett traced the timeline of historical events that eventually led her to clerk for Horace Ward the first African-American judge in Georgia, who years earlier unsuccessfully challenged racial segregation when he was denied admittance to the University of Georgia School of Law. She also shared one of her own confrontations with discrimination as a first grader whose only school books were those thrown in the trash from White schools and the lesson she learned from her father after this realization.

“(My teacher) looked at me and she said colored children don’t get new books. And I didn’t get that because I went to school after Brown vs. Board of Education,” Hatchett said. “What (my father’s) message was is I’m not going to let you wallow at the pity party. You cannot rest on the idea that injustice exists. We are called on to seize the opportunity. We are called to write a new story.”

At the center of Hatchett’s comments was the message that although injustice exists, African-Americans must use their power to vote to bring about change. She highlighted education as one of the key tenants of change and urged the audience to challenge lawmakers to focus more on education and less on incarceration.

“It costs $63 a day to house an inmate in Allegheny County. We spend almost three times as much to house prisoners in Pennsylvania as we do to educate children. We’ve got to invest and we’ve got to hold officials accountable who are making decisions,” Hatchett said. “If you don’t cheer for your children, the thugs will.”

This year’s Judge Homer S. Brown Honorees were judges Cheryl Lynn Allen, Kim Berkeley Clark, Gary Lancaster, Joseph Williams, Dwayne Woodruff, and attorneys Elliot Howsie and Tracey McCants Lewis.

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