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Local NAACP champions human rights

| Monday, Sept. 22, 2003

Peering out over the audience Saturday at the Monongahela Valley Branch NAACP Human Rights Banquet, Ferne Taylor apparently liked what she saw.

"This reminds me of an old civil rights song, "We Shall Overcome," said Taylor, co-chairwoman of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Ways and Means Committee. "We have black and white together."

Taylor then paused and added: "At least for tonight."

The song of freedom and equality has been recorded by numerous artists in a variety of forms, including a version that proclaims:

"Black and white together,
"Black and white together,
"Black and white together, someday,
"O glory, deep in my heart,
"I do believe,
"We shall overcome, someday."

Just about every version of the song speaks of unity, including Mahalia Jackson's interpretation, which featured this verse:

"We'll walk hand in hand, we'll walk hand in hand,
"We'll walk hand in hand someday;
"Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
"We'll walk hand in hand someday."

The crowd at the 43rd annual human rights event at the St. Spyridon Hellenic Center in Monessen, though largely black, was representative of the multicultural Monongahela Valley. It was conducted under the theme "Having Our Say," and a number of people did Saturday night.

Taylor - who asked participants to stand up and both greet their neighbors and shake hands - spoke briefly and hopefully.

However, the keynote speaker, restaurateur and former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back J.T. Thomas, described an imperfect world that often is racially divided. He also challenged the audience to continue the fight for freedom that the NAACP launched 94 years ago in an America stained by segregationist Jim Crow laws, the Ku Klux Klan and its ilk, and a population that generally accepted racial bias.

"We have not arrived, yet," declared Thomas, who later said, "Success is not an entitlement that allows us to sit down and forget."

Thomas said it is vital to minister to children, to foster in young people strong senses of love, discipline and self-respect.

"Little boys think that having a gun in their pants and a blunt in their mouths is what it is all about," said Thomas, who noted that while 80 percent of prison population is black, only 13 percent of the U.S. population is black." ... Every time a child fails, America fails."

Deeply involved with programs at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh's Hill District neighborhood, Thomas said many societal problems are driven by "EGO" - "Edging God Out."

He said faith, "is what brings us out of slavery time and time again."

"The man upstairs is your last resort," he added.

Thomas, who grew up in Macon, Ga., and became the first black football player at Florida State University, stayed in Pittsburgh after he left the National Football League. He, along with former Steelers lineman Larry Brown, owns and operates 13 Applebee's Restaurants.

Branch President George Burroughs Jr. said the event was a success.

He also called on Mon Valley residents to bolster NAACP efforts through increased membership.

"We have come a long way in the last 30 or 40 years, but things are not the way they should be," Burroughs said. "There is a lot of work to be done in the community and the black community.

"We can't sit back and wait for things to happen. We can't listen to people speak and go home and feel good. We have to do it ourselves in black churches, schools, the NAACP and as parents in the home."

Burroughs said the Mon Valley is an excellent model for diversity.

"We grew up, worked and played together, even worshiped together," Burroughs said of the local population. "The Mon Valley, most of the time is a nice place. Things always could be better, though."

Burroughs thanked the community for supporting both the organization and the Human Rights banquet.

"We've made progress, but we need volunteers. The NAACP is an organization for everybody. Everybody's colored. We fight for everyone's civil rights, and we hope more people will come out and join us."

State Rep. Peter J. Daley, a California Democrat who received the local NAACP chapter's Recognition Award, said he has devoted much of his life to racial equality.

The following also received awards from Burroughs:

Joseph Randall Jr.: Veterans Affairs Award.

Shirley Demko: Appreciation Award.

Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Services Inc.: Community Service Award, accepted by Jeff Mascara, executive vice president and chief executive officer.

Mon Valley NAACP First Vice President Gladys Foster presented Youth Achievement Awards to:

Rona L. Bullard, Charleroi Area High School and Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Erika L. Crenshaw, Monessen High School and West Virginia University.

Adrianne R. Holmes, Ringgold High School and California University of Pennsylvania.

Arthur J. "A.J." Jackson, Monessen High School and East Tennessee State University.

Tanisha Cheatham, of Charleroi Area High School, and Kenneth Robinson, of California Area High School, received local branch scholarships.

WPXI-TV anchorwoman Gina Redmond served as master of ceremonies.

The event drew representatives from NAACP chapters across the region.

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