The 2015 W.E.B. Du Bois Medal winners
Hutchins Center

The third annual Hutchins Centers Honors convened Wednesday evening at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. The event honors trailblazers in politics, culture, business and finance. This year's Du Bois Medal awardees—including Muhammad Ali (in absentia), former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the Children’s Defense Fund’s Marian Wright Edelman, Ariel Investments’ Mellody Hobson, journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, artist Carrie Mae Weems and hip-hop legend Nasir “Nas” Jones—represent some of the most important figures in politics, culture, business and finance. The program included readings from the works of W.E.B. Du Bois and music from Harvard College’s Kuumba Singers.

Presided over by Harvard University professor and Hutchins Center Director Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root, the ceremony brought together a diverse crowd of racial-justice advocates to honor the pursuit of collective racial justice through individual excellence. The past year of racial strife inspired many of the evening’s speakers, with Gates noting his concern that “we are nearing the end of the Second Reconstruction” as African Americans face renewed challenges to equal opportunity through the denial of voting rights and assaults by the criminal-justice system. Gates, in acknowledging the 2015 recipients, echoed the “Black lives matter” phrase that has become a generational clarion call.

Eric Holder, the nation’s first black attorney general, spoke about the need to defend voting rights and received a standing ovation.

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Marian Wright Edelman, a civil rights activist who worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and is founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, said that America “would miss the boat” into the 21st century if we didn’t invest in all of our children, especially those of color. “We neglect them at our peril.”

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who integrated the University of Georgia in 1961 and became one of the first black New York Times reporters, accepted her award in memory of civil rights activist Julian Bond.

Mellody Hobson, who was one of the youngest honorees onstage, along with Nas, recalled how growing up amid financial hardship made her “desperate to learn about money,” forging her path to becoming president of Chicago-based Ariel Investments, one of America’s largest black investment firms. Hobson challenged the audience to “be brave” in the struggle for racial justice.

Nasir “Nas” Jones, the Queens, N.Y.-born hip-hop icon, received the greatest applause. Jones, humble and genuinely moved, discussed hip-hop’s evolution from the gritty streets of urban America to a global movement important enough to be acknowledged by powerful institutions such as Harvard. He explained that he “wanted to be a role model” for poor black kids who lack the educational opportunities to change their lives.

Medals were also presented to two members of the Hutchins Center’s Advisory Board, Ethelbert J.L. Cooper and Richard D. Cohen. Cooper, the principal founder of Afren Plc, was honored for funding the construction of the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art at the Hutchins Center. Cohen, the CEO of Capital Propeties, has donated four significant pieces of contemporary art to the Cooper Gallery, as well as establishing the Richard D. Cohen Lectures and the Richard D. Cohen Fellowship in African and African American art. 

Collectively, the honorees reflect the breadth and depth of the black freedom struggle, both historically and politically. The tapestry of African-American history is global, multicultural, multiracial and multigenerational. It spans music, art, culture, finance, politics and protest and includes women, men and young people, along with white allies, the formally educated and the self-taught.

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The unique and powerful vision of the Hutchins Center is evident in its embrace of the complexity of black political culture in the 21st century. Given the choice between being activists or artists, entrepreneurs or elected officials, politicians or preachers, historically the black community has chosen all of the above, a realization powerfully embodied in this year’s honorees.   

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.