‘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.

You can contact Bella Laufenberg at


Klau Center granted institute status

The Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights has been elevated to an institute following a large donation from Rick and Molly Klau, according to a University press release Wednesday. The Klau Institute falls within the Keough School of Global Affairs and offers a curriculum in which students explore critical issues through the lens of Catholic social tradition, according to its website.

As a result of its elevation to the institute level, the institute will increase its capacity to educate students and assume “greater responsibility for national and international engagement,” according to the release.

The release emphasized that the center’s recent initiatives, such as the Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary lecture series, will be supplemented and supported by the new donations.

Scott Appleby, the Marilyn Keough dean of the Keough School, expressed his gratitude to the Klaus for their gift.

“Protecting, advancing and enforcing human rights and civil rights are central to the pursuit of justice for all people, to Catholic social teaching and to the mission of Notre Dame,” Appleby said in the release. “The Klau Institute for Civil and Human Rights, which will educate countless generations of Notre Dame students and help train civil rights and human rights lawyers and advocates, is a gift to the University and to the world.”

The Klau family endowed the institute in 2018 with a $10 million gift. Former University President Fr. Theodore Hesburgh founded the institute in 1973 with the mission of advancing the “God-given dignity of all human persons,” according to the website.