‘It was never about a dream’: NAACP president and CEO speaks at Notre Dame Black excellence celebration dinner

On Thursday evening, hundreds of Notre Dame students, staff and faculty weathered the northern Indiana winter to gather in the Morris Inn Smith Ballroom. 

From the other side of the nation, president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Derrick Johnson and other activists traveled to join them. 

Together, they all joined in a celebration of Black excellence as one of the final events of Notre Dame’s annual Walk the Walk week.

Although the goal of the week has been to consider realistic future steps towards diversity and inclusion while reflecting on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., Johnson made a different point during his keynote address. 

To begin, he joked to the audience about the pitfalls of the “preach and sleep” method, saying that he was not a fan of a speech format where he spoke about issues unrelatable to the listeners. Johnson urged the audience to both listen and participate in the dialogue during the event and beyond. 

“From our perspective, as NAACP, we see that our democracy is on a shoestring,” he explained. “Being able to pursue life, liberty and happiness as guaranteed in our Constitution is eroding fast and is eroding because of tribalism — using the current political climate to destroy social norms and expectations.”

And instead of preaching, Johnson started to tell a story. He told the audience about a man named A. Philip Randolph and his work as one of the first leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, organizing one of the first labor unions and campaigning to integrate armed services. Johnson also brought up Medgar Evers and an important woman whose true narrative got lost in American history. 

“She always looked much younger than her age. She was a fierce fighter. She was a secretary for the NAACP in Alabama,” he noted. “When there was an incident, she would be the person to go in and investigate those incidents. Does anyone know who I’m talking about? Rosa Parks.”

Pulling it all together, Johnson detailed the events after Parks’ arrest.

“[E.D. Nixon] called three people.” The first two were pastors, who wholeheartedly agreed to participate in whatever Nixon was organizing. The second was MLK Jr., who hesitated due to a fear of being driven out of a town he just moved to. 

“And the reason why I’m going through this part of the journey [is] because in movements, everyone has something to contribute and that as we think of the Civil Rights movement or journey, it was never about one person,” he declared. 

And when the audience was listening in silence, Johnson emphasized: “It was never about a ‘dream’! It was always about the demand that the social contract we call the Constitution will be applied to all.”

Expanding on that idea while the listeners hung on his every word, Johnson proclaimed again. 

“Race is a social construct. It is a political title that we carry around to create ‘others,’” he said. “It is a tool that is still being used today so effectively that it is tearing this democracy apart.”

Moving on, Johnson addressed the audience and called on them to take part in a dialogue. Both faculty members and student leaders stood up to make additions and asked questions regarding steps moving forward at the closing of the event.

The last question was posted by Balfour-Hesburgh scholar and senior Kirsten Williams. 

“When I look at black communities in my local area, it’s disheartening to see that they’re plagued with a lot of violence,” she asked. “What are some strategies or methods that we can employ to uplift and empower Black communities?”

Johnson’s answer was that everything boiled down to hope. “What you are witnessing is the legacy of systemic barriers resulting in hopelessness,” he explained. 

To close, he told one last story about his time in a class that was a requirement for his college graduation. His teacher, Johnson said, was upset one day because of a batch of bad test scores. 

“This particular day, Dr. Simmons was late to class,” he began. “We all get there, we’re sitting quiet. He comes in and was visibly upset… He said to us ‘some of you are resting on your laurels; I assure you, they are not strong enough.’”

Johnson looked around the room and then repeated: “Some of you are sitting on your laurels… Don’t rest on your laurels.”

“All of us in this room have an obligation because we are in a top-tier percentage of those who have the skill and the ability to protect it, grow it and ensure that the social contract we call the Constitution applies to all,” he added. “But the question is, are you up to that challenge?” 

The dinner had many different sponsors, including the Multicultural Student Programs and Services (MSPS), the president’s office and the Department of Diversity and Inclusion, but the event was mainly organized by Notre Dame student government. Leading the charge was Eliza Smith, director of diversity and inclusion – race and ethnicity, and her department. Additionally, biology graduate student Camille Mosley served as the event’s emcee and first-year Bernice Antoine led the group in an opening prayer. 

“We pray for the Black community here and around the world for justice where there is in justice, peace on every street corner and hope for your grace to pour out on this nation,” she invoked with a loud “Amen” and agreement heard around the room. 

At the end of the evening, after dinner and Johnson’s talk, Mosley announced the recipients of the Black excellence staff, faculty and student awards. She explained that the nomination committee decided on the two winners in each category based on a very rigid rubric that took into account many factors including personal accomplishments and their commitment to the legacy of MLK’s dream

The staff award had 19 total nominations and winners were Barbara Wadley, the coordinator for the Balfour-Hesburgh Scholars program, and Harold Swanagan, director of basketball operations. Out of eight possible candidates, the faculty award was given to associate professor of management and organization Angela Logan and associate professor of architecture John Onyango. Finally, students Daymine Snow and Temitayo Ade-Oshifogun were chosen out of the 15 other student nominees.  

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Notre Dame commemorates MLK, racial justice with Walk the Walk Week

On July 21, 1964, political peacemaker and then-University president Fr. Theodore Hesburgh joined hands with Martin Luther King, Jr. after an impromptu address to crowds at a civil rights rally in Chicago. 

Hesburgh and King, standing side-by-side and hand-in-hand, sang “We shall overcome,” originally a gospel song that had since been adopted as an anthem for the civil rights movement. 

This moment, memorialized in a photograph, has long defined the tradition of social justice at the University of Notre Dame. 

To continue this history and foster the culture of a socially-conscious campus community, the president’s oversight committee on diversity and inclusion announced the creation of Walk the Walk Week (WTWW) in November of 2015. The first observance of the week was held Jan. 18-22, 2016 and featured events like a celebration luncheon, a lecture from the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement and film screenings of “Selma” and “Boycott,” among others. 

This year marked only the second campus-wide observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a federal holiday. As such, WTWW will be celebrated from Thursday, Jan. 19 to Friday, Jan. 27. 

The president’s office is responsible for organizing the keynote events each year. This week’s keynote address will be delivered by Natasha Trethewey, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and the Poet Laureate of the U.S. from 2012 to 2014. 

Trethewey, currently serving as an Artist in Residence at the Notre Dame Institute on Race and Resilience, will deliver her speech, “Why I Write,” at 5 p.m. on Thursday in 215/216 McKenna Hall. Following Trethewey’s address, WTWW’s annual service project and prayer service will occur over the weekend. 

The WTWW service project this year aims to “address the immediate needs of people experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity in the greater South Bend area,” according to the website. The project will collect, organize and distribute necessary supplies, such as toiletries, to those in need. Items will be collected until Saturday, Jan. 21, at which point collections will be sorted, packaged and given to local organizations. 

On Sunday at 6:30 p.m., the annual prayer service will be given by the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop and primate, the Most Rev. Michael Curry. Curry received international attention in 2018 for his viral sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. He will lead the campus community in reflecting on Dr. King’s legacy and praying for the end of injustice and inequality. After the address, participants will be welcomed to take part in a candlelight march and reception in the Main Building Rotunda. 

While these three keynote events kick off the week, there are many more events to follow.

Notre Dame student government is one of the groups co-sponsoring events to come later on in WTWW. Senior and student body president Patrick Lee expressed his enthusiasm about the programming.

“Student government is excited to be a part of WTWW’s events that highlight all of our University’s strength and diversity,” he said. “It’s our privilege to work with the president’s office and our cultural clubs, and it’s our hope that all our events promote a healthier, stronger community for the Notre Dame of the future.”

Leading the organizing from student government is Eliza Smith, director of diversity and inclusion — race and ethnicity. Smith expressed her personal connection to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy on campus.

“For me personally, this week means a lot to me. I was the [student] senator to write the resolution requesting a full-day observance for MLK Day, two years ago,” she said. “[The Njomo-Bisner administration and I] created the MLK coalition and we got that fully passed through all the necessary channels for the full observance. So now, I’m working on WTWW, which just feels like a continuation of the groundwork we laid down.”

Smith specifically addressed how honored she feels that student government and student opinions are being included and “sought out” for WTWW events and other decisions. She said she worked closely with Heather Asiala, program director for strategic initiatives, and and Hannah Heinzekehr, program director for strategic communication, to advise the president’s office on how to communicate effectively to students. 

Smith also emphasized how King’s legacy is tied into the entire week of events. 

“WTWW is a series of programming centered around Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, his legacy of providing equality for every person, providing service and helping out your fellow neighbor no matter how they identify,” she explained. “[My team and the University] provide programming spanning from educational events to celebrating events to recognition to everything under that umbrella, to really just highlight different aspects of his mission and his legacy.”

While working with Asiala and Heinzekehr to streamline the WTWW website and other marketing channels, Smith and her department are also co-sponsoring three WTWW events: a panel on the school-to-prison pipeline, a Black@ND live podcast recording on Black excellence and a dinner celebrating Black excellence, the latter of which includes an address from Derrick Johnson, the CEO and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Smith noted how grateful she was for student government executive leadership in their efforts to build a collaborative relationship with the president’s office that led to her involvement in WTWW.

“Patrick, Sophie and Nicole have been exceptional. To have this new relationship with the president’s office really opens the doors for future admins to continue that relationship and collaborative efforts, so that we can see more events and programming that are with student input and that are highlighted and exciting in the community,” she said. 

The president’s office, Smith said, has encouraged the campus community to think about the future by using the phrase, “What’s your next step?” in this year’s marketing materials. 

“Being able to appreciate and acknowledge the work that has been done and appreciate the workers and the people who have gotten us here,” she said. “But also looking forward to what you as a person can do, I think, is incredibly impactful.”

When WTWW concludes, Smith said her team’s next steps are focused on effective programming for Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March. 

“[My department is] already working incredibly hard on Black History Month and Women’s History Month —finding ways to highlight those events, elevate Black organizations and multicultural clubs, because they have been so helpful in this process,” she explained. “We’re excited to provide support and assistance in any way possible that they need, so that we can continue this trend of supporting each other and keep the ball rolling on those kinds of initiatives.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article misspelled Derrick Johnson’s name. The Observer regrets this error.

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Coretta Scott King: A multidimensional activist

Monday marked the 37th year the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been celebrated as a national holiday. Dr. King’s commitment to overarching equality initiated a monumental fight towards racial justice that will never be forgotten. As an activist that fought to end all forms of oppression, MLK’s work has extended far beyond the Civil Rights Movement and continues to serve as a reminder that change is possible. When reflecting on the important work of MLK, it is important to remember all the important activists that were involved in this historic movement. One of the most notable activists whose work is often overlooked is Coretta Scott King: the wife of Martin Luther King Jr. However, Coretta Scott King was far more than the wife of MLK, she was a pillar of the Civil Rights Movement who expanded Dr. King’s legacy after his death and continuously campaigned for global social justice. On this holiday, it is essential that we remember both the important work of Martin Luther King Jr. along with the profound leadership role Coretta Scott King played in working toward equality in the Civil Rights Movement and beyond.

As detailed in an article in The Atlantic, Coretta Scott King’s activism began far before the Civil Rights Movement. She was more involved in politics than Dr. King when they first met, her activism started with her involvement in the NAACP and other race-based organizations at Antioch College in Ohio. Fifteen months after their marriage they moved to Montgomery, Alabama. Scott King played an essential role in the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and continued her important work even when the King’s house was bombed eight weeks into the 381 day boycott.

However, Coretta Scott King was not the only woman who played an influential role in the boycott. As Scott King said, “women have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement.” The Women’s Political Council initiated the boycott after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white man on a bus, groups of black women conducted food sales to raise money for the carpools that allowed the protests to carry on and another group of women signed plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit that prompted the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate city buses. These women made their aspirations to create radical change a reality. While Coretta Scott King is known by many as the supportive wife to Dr. King, in reality, her activism not only influenced King’s work but aimed to end all oppression.

After King received the Nobel Peace Prize, Coretta Scott King emphasized the important role they must play in pursuing world peace, starting with publicly opposing U.S. involvement in Vietnam — an action that King was hesitant to take at first as he feared criticism. Evidently, when King was asked if he had educated his wife about anti-war issues, King said, “she educated me.” Even after King’s death, Scott King’s activism did not slow down. She addressed 50,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial about racism, poverty and the Vietnam War. Additionally, she expanded her work towards advocating for welfare programs, abolishing apartheid in South Africa and fighting for gay rights and same sex marriage. Until her death, Coretta Scott King fought against a wide variety of injustices by addressing the multiple inequities built into society. 

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Dr. King). Coretta Scott King’s activism authentically embodied this influential quote. While Dr. King’s crucial work towards racial justice created radical change, Coretta Scott King initiated, motivated and expanded King’s message to combat injustices on a global scale. Dr. King’s work would not have been possible without Coretta Scott King; she and many other women were at the core of the success of the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. The erasure of Coretta Scott King’s contribution to combating social inequalities is evident to the racism and sexism that continue to permeate our society. While there are many intersecting factors that continue to marginalize specific identity groups from society, it is crucial that we all remember the work of both Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King that brought attention to these critical issues.

As described in an article detailing the impact of MLK’s work, we must remember that achieving true equality means extending this value farther than our own communities in order to work towards global justice. As shown in the diversity of issues Coretta Scott King worked to combat, there are a multitude of ways to make impactful change. MLK day is about more than the individual legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.; it is about the collective struggle of achieving equality for all. The work of many activists continues to go unnoticed due to the invisible barriers that silence the voices of marginalized identities. Dr. King was a voice for many, he was the cutting image of an oppressed individual that was finally being heard by the public at large. His perseverance, strength, wisdom and intelligence should be celebrated with pride, but the essential figures that made the movement possible should never be forgotten. While Coretta Scott King is one of the most notable, she is hardly the only one. As we celebrate the legacy of MLK this January, let’s remember the people whose activism advanced the Civil Rights Movement and expanded MLK’s powerful messages in order to work towards achieving overarching social justice.

Grace Sullivan is a first-year at Notre Dame studying global affairs with a minor in gender studies. In her column I.M.P.A.C.T (Intersectionality Makes Political Activist Change Transpire), she is passionate about looking at global social justice issues through an intersectional feminist lens. Outside of The Observer, she enjoys hiking, painting and being a plant mom. She can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer.