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NAACP National Pres. Derrick Johnson

Derrick Johnson, national president of the NAACP, said the message of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization remains essentially unchanged.

The group was founded in 1909 partly in response to the ongoing violence against African Americans across the country.

Johnson was the keynote speaker at the Pittsburgh NAACP’s 64th Annual Human Rights Dinner, May 1, at the Westin Convention Center. He said that now, the job of the NAACP is to make democracy work.

“We do that through advocating for public policy that meets the needs of our community. It improves upon the lives of many people,” Johnson said.

Nearly 400 people gathered in the Westin ballroom for the event, as they gave Johnson a rousing response as he challenged them to be involved with the NAACP, no matter their age.

“The NAACP is not a monolith. It is different from community to community. Intergenerational organizing has always been one of our strengths—not only as an organization but as a community,” he told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview.

The theme of the dinner was “New Visions—New Directions.” That struck a special chord for Johnson and for Pittsburgh NAACP President Richard Stewart Jr. Both are new in their positions with new visions.

While people are concerned about changing things they don’t like in their neighborhoods or city or country, Johnson said for there to be effective change people must first look inward.

PITTSBURGH NAACP PRESIDENT Richard Stewart Jr., with Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steeler Jerome Bettis, at the 64th Human Rights Dinner, May 1, at the Westin Convention Center. (Photo by Tene Croom)

“All of us individually have the power to make change. We must understand that through collective consciousness and action we can impact public policy that benefits our future. It is not about an individual. It is not really about an organization. It is really about all of us in the room making sure we do our part to make society a better place,” Johnson stressed.

What about those who would say the NAACP is no longer needed and not useful? As you would expect, he strongly disagreed with that kind of thinking.

“The NAACP has a proven track record and a brand that can attract the necessary support and collective action needed. Some communities may not be the vehicle, but as you look across the country we are 2,200 units strong in 47 states. And so it’s the vehicle that people there choose. If individuals choose another vehicle that’s great, so long as we’re all involved in social justice advocacy,” Johnson said.

The Human Rights Dinner raises funds for the Pittsburgh branch to implement effective local and national NAACP programs focusing on the areas of health, wealth, and education. It is also the organization’s special way of recognizing individuals in the community who have made significant strides towards advancing civil rights as well as outstanding young people.

Reverend Victor J. Grigsby, pastor, Central Baptist Church, received the Bishop Charles H. Foggie Lifetime Achievement Award. The Judge Homer S. Brown Award was bestowed on the Dan Rooney family, and Julius Boatwright, founding CEO of Steel Smiling and executive director of the Will Allen Foundation, received the Young Person of the Year Award. Additionally, scholarship awards were given out to eight high school students.


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