- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2001

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies had much to celebrate Thursday night at the Washington Hilton. The nonprofit think tank, which focuses its research and energies on affecting public policy to improve the lives of black Americans, handed out its first awards for racial reconciliation at its annual dinner.

Honors went to South African civil rights leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the esteemed historian John Hope Franklin, "two giants in the struggle for human dignity," as mistress of ceremonies, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, put it.

The other purpose of the evening, said the Center´s long-time president, Eddie Williams, was to "friend-raise and fund-raise." Mission accomplished: The organization took in $1 million thanks to the more than 1,000 loyal supporters who paid $500 and up for tickets, and such big-league corporate sponsors as AT&T, IBM and Coca-Cola.

The dinner chairman was Ford Motor Company President and CEO Jacques A. Nasser, who reminded the crowd that "strong communities need strong companies." Not only, he boasted, does Ford have the largest number of minority dealers in the country, it is also "the largest user of outside minority legal counsel" his only possible reference to Ford´s recent trouble over faulty Firestone tires. (Mr. Nasser refused to answer direct questions from working press at the event).

The award presentation was preceded by a keynote address from former Mississippi Gov. William F. Winter, and the screening of a portion of "Tutu & Franklin: A Journey Toward Peace," a PBS documentary about the two men meeting for the first time on Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, the site of a former slave port.

Archbishop Tutu was ailing, and therefore unable to attend the dinner in person, but his daughter, Thandeka Tutu-Gxashe, a researcher at Atlanta´s Emory University, accepted the award in his behalf. She said that while her father has received the Nobel Peace Prize and countless other honors for his struggle against apartheid and corruption in his country´s political system, the honor was special because the Joint Center has a significant working relationship with South Africa. (The organization has a branch office in Johannesburg that, among other services, provides HIV/AIDS education and help for formerly disenfranchised citizens who wish to run for political office.

Mr. Winter, who recently led the failed fight to replace Mississippi´s Confederate-friendly state flag, drew a parallel between South Africa and the American South. Both "became victims of their own prejudice and fear," he said in his after-dinner remarks.

Mr. Winter served on President Clinton´s Advisory Board on Race headed by Mr. Franklin, who was the real star of the evening.

And that meant a major welcome from Rev. Jesse Jackson, who greeted the honoree with a big hug and "great to see you, man."

All agreed that Mr. Franklin´s scholarly work has had a major impact on the study of race relations in the United States, starting with publication of his seminal book, "From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans," back in 1947. The James. B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and many other honors, including an impressive number of honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the world.

"Just how many?" he was asked.

"Only 132," he said with a chuckle, going on to add that he is now working on his autobiography, a project that has required him to immerse himself in the reading of a great many old newspapers.

Mr. Franklin seemed confident that times have changed for the better since he was a young man. When he compares racial attitudes of the World War II-era to "where we are now," he feels optimistic about race relations today.

Still, there were a few bitter memories.

At a time when much of the country is abuzz over the blockbuster movie "Pearl Harbor" and the contributions of the "Greatest Generation" during World War II, Mr. Franklin recalled trying to volunteer for the Navy after Pearl Harbor at age 26, with a Ph.D. from Harvard under his belt. "They said to me, 'Well, you have everything but color.´ I wasn´t white enough. So I said they don´t deserve me, and they won´t get me."

Some 60 years later, he accepted the Joint Center´s award to a standing ovation, calling the honor "one of the great moments of my life."

And yet the fight´s not over, he said. "We have a few hundred thousand miles to go, but we´re on our way."

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