Carnegie Hall in New York City has seen a lot of firsts since it opened in 1891 and now it can add another, or three, to its long list.
Monday night the performance hall’s stage was graced by the first woman, first African-American and first Asian-American to be vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris, at an event celebrating a Black activist organization for its first 30 years of service.
It was a ceremony for the 30th Anniversary of National Action Network and the 67th birthday celebration for its founder Rev. Al Sharpton, held the night before local elections take place across the country.
Vice President Harris delivered the keynote address to a room that included NAN honorees, state and local officials and families representing several victims of police brutality. Outside of talking about what’s next for the Biden-Harris administration’s agenda, such as the Build Back Better Framework, Harris focused on an issue that will be looming over voting polls today: voting rights.
“We know our history well. Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, C.T. Vivian, John Lewis—these were some of the icons, the trailblazers, the visionaries,” Harris said, “Who understood that the path to a more perfect union is through the expansion of rights and the protection of rights.”
Among the attendees was Sen. Nikema Williams, who won the Georgia congressional seat left vacant by the late John Lewis last year. Many voters in Georgia will be experiencing the new statewide voter restrictions passed in the state this year for the first time.
“And in this moment be familiar with some other names: Gov. Greg Abbott, Gov. Ron DeSantis, Shelby v. Holder, Brnovich v. DNC. These are the decision makers and decisions that are undoing the legacy of our heroes. We cannot let this happen on our watch,” Harris said, receiving a resounding applause from NAN supporters.
This past year, strict voter laws have been created and passed in many states, specifically those led by Republicans, in response to the massive voter turnout in the 2020 election. Harris held nothing back when she called the numerous voter fraud claims the “Big Lie.”
She called for NAN to continue another 30 years of activism in all social areas, but especially in the fight to protect what she calls the “fundamental right” to vote.
Harris then made a direct charge to Congress to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. “Whether we take an oath of office or we take to the streets, we all have an important role to play. When people get out to the polls, as they will tomorrow, when people go out to march, I do not see that as a threat to our democracy. I see that as a mark of our democracy,” she told the attendees before leaving the stage.
The ceremony continued with virtual congratulations and birthday wishes from Rev. Sharpton’s friends, including former President Barack Obama, Gloria Steinem, Stacey Abrams and President Joe Biden. There to issue their messages in person on stage were New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
Awards were presented to Terrence Blanchard, Hazel N. Dukes, Marva Smalls, Lorne Michaels, and Robert De Niro, who was not in attendance, for their impact on the culture and being voices of change on social issues. Vice President Harris previously received an award from NAN back in 2018.
One of the last to speak was Eric Adams, one of the more popular candidates for New York City mayor who will be on voter ballots on Tuesday. Sharpton, who has already declared Adams the winner, introduced the candidate as one of the five signees that helped organize NAN. The 61 year-old Brooklynite is running on a platform to better public health, housing and education, which he spoke to as he addressed the attendees.
“New York, this is an Esther 4:14 moment,” Adams said, “God made me for such a time as this.”
Rev. Sharpton looked around the Stern Auditorium in Carnegie, recalling his childhood as a boy preacher in Brownsville in Brooklyn, New York. “Took me 67 years to get here,” he said about standing on the stage. He now joins a shortlist of Black activists like Booker T. Washington, Marcus and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who have spoken about their causes at Carnegie.
“Tonight we’ve had a remarkable coming together reflection that will empower us to go into the future with relevance, changing the world,” NAN Chairman and Chairman of the Conference of National Black Churches, Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson, told The Root.