Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Negative and often mean-spirited public discourse has led to a serious spike in membership for the Battle Creek Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
, says Lynn Ward Gray, Membership Chairperson and co-chair of the organization’s annual Freedom Fund Dinner with her husband, Sam.
This year’s dinner, the first in-person gathering in two years, will be held at 5 p.m. Oct. 28 at the Burma Center, followed by dinner and a program at 6 p.m. Prior to the dinner, there will be a Black Business Expo.
The keynote address will be given by Karen Boykin Towns, Vice Chair of the NAACP National Board of Directors, and the annual Image Award winners also will be announced.
Karen Boykin Towns, Vice Chair of the NAACP National Board of Directors, will give the keynote address.
In 2020, the dinner, which is a major fundraiser for the local NAACP was canceled due to COVID. While some NAACP branches throughout the United States opted to have virtual gatherings in 2021, Lynn Gray says leadership with the local branch decided it wouldn’t be the same and decided to wait.
Boykin Towns said “to let her know when it would be in-person again and when we told her, without hesitation, she said she’d be here,” Gray says.
Despite the postponement of the dinner for two consecutive years, contributions continued to come in from individuals and organizations that signed on to become members because of the racial disparities exposed by the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, she says.
“A lot of them were motivated by what they were seeing in terms of public discourse and the political climate and they wanted to align with other Freedom Fighters,” Sam Gray says. “Even if they couldn’t be at our meetings, they knew that their membership could help our work and some people just sent donations.”
Locally the proceeds from the Freedom Fund Dinner are used for operating expenses and funding programs. Local programs include the Heritage Quiz Bowl, voter registration/education, GOTV initiatives, legal redress, and the Youth Council among others.
Carey Whitfield, President of the Battle Creek NAACP, says they will continue to work together with Battle Creek residents to promote solutions to some of the most pressing issues facing Black communities across the country today.
“In addition, we continue to support and partner with nonprofit organizations within the community,” says Carey Whitfield, President of the Battle Creek NAACP and along with his wife, Linda, is an Honorary Co-Chair of the dinner. “With our national theme #ThisIsPower, the Battle Creek Branch, a part of the nation's most prominent advocacy and social justice organization, will continue to work together with Battle Creek residents to promote solutions to some of the most pressing issues facing Black communities across the country today.”
Since 1909, the NAACP has helped guide America’s moral compass to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons to eliminate racial hatred and discrimination. The Battle Creek Branch was founded in 1924 and Whitfield says its members and friends of the organization and friends “aid in this monumental task every day.”
“People know in their mind to call the NAACP if they feel like they’ve been discriminated against,” Ward Gray says.
Lynn Ward Gray, Membership Chairperson of the Battle Creek NAACP, says the focus this year is bringing in youth people.
A major focus this year for the organization is to increase youth membership. Ward Gray says they need at least 25 young people to have youth membership attached to the local NAACP chapter. The cost of an annual youth membership is $10.
Proceeds from the dinner will be used to provide scholarships to young people who want to join, but not have the financial resources to do so.
Sam Gray says a membership in the NAACP is a “power membership.”
“When we collectively get together and raise those issues that are important to individuals in our community, we raise the opportunities to make a difference and educate,” he says. “We’re more powerful when we think about acting collectively.”
He says he sometimes is asked about the relevancy of the NAACP and says his response is simple and straightforward.
“If we don’t do it, who will?” he asks. “This is one of those extreme ownerships. You own it and you become accountable.” The murder of George Floyd “showed that we still have a lot of work to do with our legal system. But, there is also major concerns about our voting system and voters' rights. We’re still relevant because we have people who are trying to turn back the clock.”
For additional information about the Battle Creek NAACP
or the dinner, contact Sam Gray at (269) 209-0293.