By Shirley Hawkins
LOS ANGELES — Spirits were high as Mayor Eric Garcetti, Public Works Commissioner Mike Davis, local residents and civic leaders paid homage to African American Heritage Month with a virtual Zoom virtual celebration Feb. 5.
The city honored U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump and Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, who was part of the team that developed the Moderna vaccine. The legendary R&B singing group The Manhattans also was honored as living legends.
“This is one of my favorite holidays,” said Garcetti, who added that he celebrated his birthday Feb. 4, a birthday he shares with civil rights icon Rosa Parks.
Garcetti acknowledged that African Americans have been participants in the growth of Los Angeles since its inception. “We are a Black city made strong by the contributions of Black people,” he said, noting that of the 40 trail-blazing pioneers who founded the city in 1781, 26 were of African heritage.
After praising this year’s honorees, Garcetti then expressed his appreciation for the frontline workers who sacrifice their lives each day during the pandemic.
He then urged Angelenos to get vaccinated.
“When your turn comes, I want to say this loud and clear to our Black brothers and sisters, get that vaccine. It has been created by a Black woman. You can trust this [vaccine] and we need to stop dying in disproportionate numbers across this country.”
“This celebration is not just a happy time, it should be a moment for us to recommit ourselves and take every step we can to end systemic racism and to make our city not just diverse, but to bring people and the community together that is looking for unity from those of us in leadership positions,” City Attorney Mike Feuer.
City Controller Ron Galperin appeared on camera to praise Waters.
“Maxine Waters, wow,” he enthused. “Energetic, passionate, effective. When I mature a little bit, I hope that I can be like her and still have that verve and energy to do all that she does.”
City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas said, “African American Heritage Month is a remembrance of the strength, resilience, wisdom and courage of the rich heritage we came from.
“It’s a time of the year when we pause to pay heed to the contributions the African-American community has made to our nation’s progress, from the founding of this country to the civil rights movement and countless other accomplishments that include business, literature, music, art and much more. I invite you to use this month as an opportunity to learn, to energize, to reflect on the cultural contributions of our community.”
Ernestine Gordon, president of the Our Authors Study Club, one of the sponsors of the event, spoke about the strength and resiliency of the Black family while praising newly elected Vice President Kamala Harris and first national youth poet laureate Amanda Gordon, both of whom she noted were raised by single mothers.
“We need to teach our children that the courage and perseverance of the Black family has always been strong,” she said.
Waters, the first woman and the first African American to chair the House Financial Services Committee in Congress, said, “I am so excited to be one of this year’s nominees along with Dr. Corbett and attorney Crump.”
Moving on to issues of the day, Waters said, “We must end the homeless crisis in our city. We must reform our criminal justice system. We have to restore and protect voting rights, continue to advance civil and human rights and put an end to wealth inequality.
“As the first woman to chair the House Financial Services Committee, I am focused on closing this wealth gap. I can promise you that I am still fighting and always will for all Angelenos and constituents of the 43rd District.”
She then urged Angelenos not to hesitate to get the vaccine.
“The vaccine is so important in saving lives,” she said.
That led the program to Corbett, a viral immunologist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, who led her team in the development of the coronavirus vaccine for Moderna Inc. She said she has been showered with attention since the vaccine was introduced to the public.
“Thank you so much for giving me this esteemed honor,” she said. “I am so grateful to have the opportunity to shine my light and my knowledge on the world and to have the world see the brilliance of Black women. Black people have always made their mark on scientific inventions but oftentimes they were overshadowed and unseen. It’s wonderful to stand in the footprints of giants that came before me.
“There are two people dying every minute,” Corbett said of COVID-19. “The burden of their deaths sits in our minority communities, particularly with Black people who experience 2 or 3 more deaths (per minute) than our white counterparts. I beg of you to please remain informed around this vaccine and virus so that when the vaccine comes to your front door, you will know whether or not to take it. A decision to get a vaccine is a matter of life and death.”
Attorney Crump also said he was honored to be part of the program..
“But my heart is heavy today as I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that today is Trayvon Martin’s birthday,” he said. “I receive this award thinking of him and thinking of Breanna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmad Aubrey and so many others that have left this earth far too soon.”
Crump added that he wanted Black America to mentor its children.
“It is the right thing to do to fight for our children because if we don’t fight for our children’s future, we can’t expect anybody else to fight for them,” he said.
Singer Gerald Alston and Troy May of The Manhattans, whose group has performed for five decades, expressed their gratitude for receiving the Living Legend award.
“We’re builders of this country and God has blessed us to sustain and keep moving forward,” said Alston, who also paid tribute to two generations of Manhattans, past and present, that gave the group its special sound.
Rounding out the ceremony with closing remarks was Michael Lawson, president of the Los Angeles Urban League.
“This year’s honorees are superheroes,” he said. “They continue to make African-American history which is also American history. We know there is still a need for Black History Month to continue and we must continue to celebrate.”
Bishop Craig A. Worsham of the Agape Church of Los Angeles delivered the invoction to start the program. Little Miss African American Soriya Smith, 8, recited a poem by Maya Angelou and singer Melba Moore delivered a song that showcased her five octave vocal range.
Also performing an inspiring song was vocalist Howard Hewitt.
Shirley Hawkins is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.