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Civil Rights Museum Gala honors local leaders and national activists


“When I was in high school, four A&T students started marching downtown to the Woolworth’s counter. And for some reason, my brain told me, I needed to be down there too,” said Sandra Hughes, legendary broadcast reporter while visiting the International Civil Rights Center Museum (ICRCM) in downtown Greensboro on July 25.

Hughes was one of six people recently honored at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum’s 2023 fundraising gala held at the Koury Convention Center this year. The annual event commemorates the lunch counter sit-in movement, which began on February 1, 1960, spearheaded by A&T College students and high school students.

Seated in front of the former F.W. Woolworth’s lunch counter at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum prior to the gala, Hughes and other honorees recounted pivotal moments in their lives around civil rights.

Hughes, the first African American woman to host her own daily talk show in the North Carolina Piedmont, received the museum’s Trailblazer Award on Tuesday evening at the awards ceremony. In 1978, Hughes became the first African American woman in the Southeast to host the nationally syndicated PM Magazine. In 1990, she returned to the newsroom as WFMY’s 6 p.m. evening news anchor and spearheaded the Minority Broadcast Development Program in 1992.

She went on to share that when her show first aired in 1974, the news station would receive bomb threats when her show was scheduled to air. However, Hughes added that she did not let the pushback deter her drive to succeed.

“I did not understand, at the time, that I was being called to be a ‘trailblazer.’ But now I understand what that means to be a person who believes in something, believes in a life so much, to go and move forward no matter what someone else is saying to them,” said Hughes.

More than 1,000 attendees gathered on Tuesday, July 25, on the 63rd anniversary of the culmination of the Greensboro sit-ins at the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter. Led by the A&T Four, David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and Joseph McNeil, the six month-long strategically planned protesting and nonviolent civil disobedience by local university and high school students spread to 55 cities and 14 states, helping to achieve the significant milestone of integration of public dining facilities across the country.

This year also marks the 60th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963. In recognition of this momentous demonstration, the ICRCM made the theme of the Gala, “The March to Washington Continues.”

Mary Ellen Bender, a White, female student at Bennett College at the time, also joined the protests. She became a student at Bennett College after she joined a college exchange program as a student at Ohio Wesleyan College in 1956. She would go on to become Bennett’s first White graduate after transferring her senior year. Bender demonstrated with her Bennett classmates in the early part of 1960. She was presented with the Sit-In Participant Award.

“It was what felt right to me. I just knew that I was going to protest — with my friends,” Bender, who added she never hesitated to participate, even when someone put a lit cigarette in her pocket during a demonstration.

“I’m just so appreciative of the Bennett sisterhood,” Bender added.

The Unsung Hero Award went to Katie “Kay” Cashion, an At-Large Guilford County Commissioner, who has served on numerous boards, committees, and organizations in the City of Greensboro and Guilford County. Her leadership spans from the Junior League of Greensboro to her 19 years of service as a Guilford County Commissioner, and her efforts for the Dolley Madison Women’s Club and for Clara’s House — a shelter for abused women and children.

“This just reaffirms what we are doing today. We need to remember our history, so that we don’t repeat it,” said Cashion.

Honoree Rev. Dr. Bernard LaFayette Jr., a key civil rights activist, noted that some of the photographs in the museum brought up distinct memories, particularly an infamous one of James Zwerg, a Freedom Rider, after being attacked at a bus station in Alabama — because he was there.

“I saw that man knock him over the rail at the bus station,” said LaFayette. “We arrived at the bus station, and we had no protection but each other.”

He also recalled his last moments with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and encouraged younger activists to keep up the fight against racial discrimination.

“What you’re doing here is rebuilding. Rebuilding our history. I’m so proud of all of you,” he said.

As a key civil rights activist, minister, educator, and lecturer, the Rev. Dr. Bernard LaFayette Jr. is an authority on the strategy of nonviolent social change. In 1960, he co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and became a leader of the Nashville Movement. He took part in the Freedom Rides in 1961 and in the Selma Movement in 1965, after he directed the Alabama Voter Registration Project in 1962. He was appointed national program administrator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and national coordinator of the 1968 Poor Peoples’ campaign by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. LaFayette has served as director of Peace and Justice in Latin America; chairperson of the Consortium on Peace Research, Education and Development; director of the PUSH Excel Institute; and minister of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tuskegee, Ala. He is also pastor emeritus of the Progressive Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn. Currently, Dr. LaFayette is a senior scholar in residence at Emory University in Atlanta, and Chairman of the Board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Greensboro Mayor Pro-Tempore, Yvonne Johnson was presented with the Lifetime Community Service Award. She became Greensboro’s first African American female mayor in 2007, and she has been a member of the Greensboro City Council for 14 years and Mayor Pro-Tempore for six years. Johnson is the executive director of One Step Further, a non-profit United Way Agency in the City of Greensboro that provides mediation and court alternative programs to at-risk youth. Also, Johnson serves on the board of directors for Malachi House. She was the Women’s Resource Center’s first president.

“I believe that community service is the rent we pay for living on this earth,” said Johnson.

Kay Brown, a member of the Greensboro Criminal Justice Advisory Commission (GCJAC) and president of the Greensboro Branch of the NAACP, was the recipient of the Keeper of the Flame Award. She has organizing experience that runs the gamut from countering voter suppression to advocating for police reform. Brown encouraged older generations to be mentors to the generations who come behind them.

The evening was completed with performances from six-time GRAMMY Award nominee Nneena Freelon, with music played by Andrew Berinson on keyboard, and a rendition of The Black National Anthem sung by Jeanne Dulin, accompanied by an interpretive dance performed by the St. James Baptist Church Praise Team.