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In one of the greatest moments of my now long life, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gave me its highest honor -- the resplendent gold Spingarn Medal.

At its convention-ending banquet, I watched in pride as some 1,700 guests reveled in the fact that the nation's oldest civil rights organization is no longer at death's door financially, but once again a strong and vital voice in shaping the social, racial and political policies of America.

I noted the stark contrast in the fact that where Ronald Reagan once spent eight years in the White House refusing to talk to leaders of the NAACP, or any other civil rights group, current Chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams and President Kweisi Mfume have brought the NAACP back to where President Clinton came to its conclave to announce major new federal commitments to truly educating the poor children of this country.

There was other evidence aplenty that the NAACP is respected -- and perhaps feared -- again among the most powerful political and business leaders in this land.

Most of the evening I just sat half-dazed, knowing that for all my boyhood dreams of becoming "important," I never fantasized that the NAACP might one day place me among the black men and women whose contributions have had great impact on the conscience of America.

But my presenter, Jerry Florence, a vice president of Nissan Motors, dragged me into many memories, delicious and painful, of the NAACP's influence on my life over the last 54 years.

It was the NAACP that forced the Navy to change its policies and allow me to become an officer on a racially integrated ship at sea during World War II, when military leaders were crying that "race mixing" on warships would be a disaster. It worked, and my life was changed profoundly.

It was the NAACP that in the 1950s pressed doggedly for the right of blacks to vote in the South. I recalled an incredibly brave man from Mississippi, Gus Courts, who was stabbed, denied supplies for his little grocery store, and eventually shot because he persisted in trying to register to vote. When I asked Courts why he had walked into life-threatening peril, he said, "Young man, you wouldn't understand. I just wanted to be able to say that I voted once before I died."

Well, the delegates to this NAACP convention understood, because within their ranks were hundreds of black members of Congress, mayors, school board members and other public officials who have gained some political power because Gus Courts and the NAACP fought for and won suffrage.

I listened to Florence's presentation speech and could even believe that my journalism has had some role in steeling the resolve of black Americans to never give up on total justice, on genuine first-class citizenship. The fact that blacks are not a "we give up" people was reflected in the fact that, despite some wild media predictions, no real campaign against integration, in schools or anyplace else, erupted here.

The sobering reality for delegates, though, was that many ominous developments in race relations have arisen and are still occurring. This means that there are more than enough challenges to blacks younger than I to try to win the cherished Spingarn. As I bask in pride and gratitude, I'll be cheering on the new contenders.

North America Syndicate

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