The Legal Defense Fund's National Equal Justice Awards Dinner Was A Full-Circle Moment For Nikole Hannah-Jones
After a challenging year that included a wrongful denial of tenure, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones was praised and awarded, alongside Sherrilyn Ifill and Stevie Wonder.
May 11, 2022 at 11:25 pm
Beautiful Black folks dressed to the nines, socializing, eating hors d’oeuvres and drinking fabulous cocktails — a lavish scene with New York City as the background, framed by the large floor-to-ceiling windows of the venue. For a select few in attendance, this luxe celebration was earned through many years of hard work, leadership, setbacks and even discrimination.
On May 10, 2022, the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) held its fabulous and meaningful 34th National Equal Justice Awards Dinner (NEJAD), honoring the work of music icon Stevie Wonder, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and LDF’s outgoing President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill for their years of tireless work fighting for equality, justice and truth. Excitement, love and gratitude were felt all-around for this year’s honorees, and the evening’s theme, “Truth Is Power,” vibrated throughout NYC’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, where the event was held.
Elaborating on the theme, current LDF president and Director-Counsel Janai Nelson wrote in the awards ceremony program, “As we face a dangerous and anti-democratic effort to rewrite our country’s history of systemic racism, the truth is the most powerful tool.”
The evening began with attendees arriving and making their grand entrance on the “blue carpet.” Here, Blavity spoke with Hannah-Jones, whose warm, yet strong spirit radiated brightly. “LDF is an organization that has impacted my life personally in so many ways,” when asked how it felt to be honored with the Spirit of Justice Award, recognizing “her unflagging courage and fierce dedication to speak truth to power throughout her prolific career.” She continued, “I think about where I was able to go to school, places I was able to live and opportunities I was able to have because of all of the lawsuits and legal fights that LDF has waged on our behalf.”
In 2021 when Hannah-Jones was denied tenure at the University of North Carolina, LDF extended its hands to fight for her. This act was a positive tipping point for the esteemed journalist; an action that solidified her love for an institution she already deeply respected. “To have an organization that I have studied my entire career — that I have written about, that I have admired — honor me in this way is very surreal.”
Now a tenured professor at Howard University, Hannah-Jones shared how the experience has been for her so far. “Howard has been amazing. The best possible result of North Carolina discriminating against me is I am at Howard.” She detailed, “Howard feels like home. I just finished teaching my first semester there, my students were brilliant, I love it. It’s one of those cases where initially what you thought you wanted wasn’t actually the thing that you needed.”
The evening continued steps away from the “blue carpet” with a cocktail hour. Overlooking Columbus Circle, the evening’s signature drink, Truth Serum, was served to the guests in martini glasses while they rubbed elbows with friends, new and old. Soon after, the party was directed into the building’s auditorium. Here is where the night’s more formal and most important proceedings took place — the presentation of the awards.
Ifill received the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award, in recognition of not only the hard work she tirelessly gave day in and day out while leading LDF for 10 years, but also for the decades of service she delivered before fronting the storied organization. During her acceptance speech she promised, “I’m leaving LDF, but I’m not leaving the fight for racial justice and equality, to which I have devoted my professional life.”
Wonder, more vibrant and youthful than ever in his 70s, was awarded the Icon Award, acknowledging his important work on the ground and in his music “which embodies LDF’s values and demonstrates his commitment to confronting the barriers that face Black Americans and other marginalized communities.” To celebrate, he sang with surprise guest John Legend not once, but twice, to the delight of many attendees.
And as previously mentioned, Hannah-Jones received the Spirit of Justice Award and used the moment to remind the audience how much work we still have ahead of us to create a more equal America. “These are times that call for great courage,” she fiercely stated. “We can’t simply hope that things are going to work out, that our democracy will be saved, that our rights will be secured. Because hope is an action, and we are all required to fight.”
After the awards program, the night concluded with dinner. One great meal, prepared for the attendees and staff of LDF to indulge in the success they accomplished so far. But also, one last meal before waking up the next day and continuing the fight, as Hannah-Jones said, we all are required to participate in — but with the hope that future generations won’t have to fight as hard or, ideally, at all.