It’s become one of the most anticipated civil rights awards programs of the year.
Even the Rev. Al Sharpton smiled for the cameras as he and his girlfriend, Aisha McShaw, made their way along the red carpet.
They weren’t alone.
A litany of stars gathered Sept. 18 at the Tabernacle Theater in Atlanta for the Triumph Awards, a joint venture by National Action Network and TV One to recognize distinguished individuals and corporations in civil rights, the arts, entertainment, education, business and sports who have made a positive impact on society by utilizing their talents and resources to help underresourced communities.
Actress Tichina Arnold hosted the ceremony for the second year in a row, and a star-studded list of entertainers from Nick Cannon and Eric Benet to Fantasia and Joe gave rousing performances in a taped two-hour ceremony that will be broadcast on TV One on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016, at 7 p.m. EDT.
National Action Network—the civil rights group founded in 1991 by Sharpton—presented awards to music mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs, filmmaker Spike Lee, attorney Benjamin Crump, FedEx executive Gina Davis and producer Jermaine Dupri. MasterCard received the Corporate Partner of the Year Award.
Now in its seventh year, the annual awards ceremony was also designed to encourage viewers to engage in the electoral process by casting their vote in November’s presidential election. The program included a moving segment that featured some of the “Mothers of the Movement,” including the moms of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown.
“It’s just hard for us to breathe,” Sybrina Fulton, whose son, Trayvon, was gunned down by George Zimmerman in 2012, told the audience. “We were just average mothers who wanted the best for our children.”
Like Fulton, Gwen Carr said that she reached out to Sharpton and NAN after her son, Eric Garner, died after being choked by a New York City police officer in 2014.
“Most people disappeared when the lights went out,” said Carr, who has since become an activist and a regular at NAN’s weekly Saturday-morning rallies in Harlem. “Reverend Sharpton was with us from day one. He never turned his back on us.”
Gospel singer Jekalyn Carr delivered a soul-stirring performance of her single “You’re Bigger,” and Joe belted out a rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me” as a montage of photos featuring black historical figures were displayed in the background. Juan and Deborah Joy Winans—of the famous gospel singing family the Winans—wowed the crowd with their arrangement of “Lord Lift Us Up.”
When Lee took the stage to accept his award, he said that his interests in films began as a child when his mother would take him to the movies. But it was during a visit to his friend Vietta Johnson’s home in the summer of 1977 when his passion for filmmaking was born.
Stored in an old brown box at Johnson’s home was a Super 8 camera and some old film that she gave to Lee. The rest is history, he said. For more than three decades, Lee has built an impressive body of work, making award-winning films like School Daze, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing.
“Give your children exposure to the arts,” Lee told the audience as he lamented how so many school districts across the country have cut music and art programs from the curriculum.
Other presenters included actors Dondre Whitfield and Larenz Tate, singer Dionne Warwick and Marc Lamont Hill, a television commentator and Distinguished Professor of African American Studies at Morehouse College.
“This started because of NAN’s commitment to honor cultural trendsetters who work hand in hand with us and the movement,” said Sharpton, who noted that Lee and Cannon participated in a march against gun violence that he led in New York City last year after the screening of the movie Chi-raq.
“We want to show the cross section of those who have been trendsetters and movement types who have come together to support a cause, rather than those who just make a cameo appearance. This is about long-term concrete struggle within the movement that goes beyond a press release.”
TV One’s inaugural airing of last year’s awards show reached more than 1.7 million viewers.
Jamal Watson is the senior staff writer for Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and the author of a forthcoming biography of the Rev. Al Sharpton. Follow him on Twitter.