St. Louis -- It was the 59th annual Freedom Fund Awards Banquet and a crowd of NAACP members and friends came together at the Renaissance Grand Hotel in St. Louis to be a part of the event.
Several East St. Louis firefighters who make up the Color Guard presented the colors as the event got under way.
This year's theme was "Game Changer."
East St. Louis Mayor Alvin L. Parks Jr. asked the question "Where are we going with changing the game? I am glad the NAACP is leading the way.
"We must carry on and continue to stand for something. We are all leaders." Parks said.
U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, briefly touched on the financial mess that's going on in Washington, D.C., saying he was in the east wing of the White House last Thursday with President Barack Obama as multiple members put their heads together to get out of the financial mess that the nation has gotten itself into.
"Our future is very bright, but not without peril. There are assaults upon our rights -- the voting rights act. The Supreme Court has stripped part of that down. We must work to continue to preserve those voting rights," Enyart told the crowd. "Programs that help Americans in need are being cut. There are cuts to the work force. We must work together. We must continue the great work of the NAACP to turn back the forces that would be regressive. We can't afford to regress," Enyart said, firing up the crowd.
The audience was filled with a host of city leaders from East St. Louis and St. Clair County. Besides Parks, there were Centreville Mayor Marius Jackson, St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern whose wife, Erin Kern, is chairman of the NAACP scholarship committee. Also attending were retired St. Clair County Judge Milton S. Wharton, former Superintendent of School District 189 Katie Wright, St. Clair County Sheriff Richard Watson, East St. Louis City Manager Deletra Hudson, East St. Louis Police Chief Michael Floore and many more.
St. Clair County Judge Heinz Rudolf was in the audience. When he was asked what Game Changers means to him, he said "forever vigilant now and in the future."
Watson, who has attended the NAACP banquet for the last 10 years, said Game Changers means "Promoting the health and well-being of everyone."
Jackson said Game Changers means a "level playing field for African-Americans" and he vowed to continue to fight for equality.
"If everybody does their part, we can make a difference," Jackson said.
Charlotte Ottley, an executive board member of the NAACP and one of the organizers of the event, said the words Game Changers for the people of East St. Louis are very befitting.
"For East St. Louis to fly, we've always had to be given change. It's not a coincidence that we are the first branch to dedicate our entire event to Game Changer and Medgar Evers.
Evers, a civil rights activist who was assassinated in 1963, organized voter registrations, demonstrations and boycotts to combat discrimination. During the highlight of the civil rights days he was seen as a tireless foot soldier for the people.
Ottley said the East St. Louis branch of the NAACP has already started preparing young people to carry the torch that symbolizes freedom, justice and equality for all.
"We are already working with our next generation of Generation Changers. We are going to start a series of education and leadership training classes," Ottley said.
The Jazz Edge Band provided lively jazz entertainment for the huge crowd. Gospel songs filled the air and there was some hip hop, too. Angel Nicole Riley stirred the crowd with her rendition of "God Bless America".
Kahala Clay, the first African-American and the first woman to hold the job of clerk for St. Clair County said she was "grateful for the sacrifice of many people who preceded me and who blazed the trail for me to have this opportunity as I will for others.
She promised the people that she will keep the light of justice bright and the scale of justice balanced for others to follow.
Stanley Franklin, the new president of the NAACP, thanked everyone for supporting him through the eight months that he has been the leader of the local branch.
"Tonight is a celebration of Game Changers, which is the national NAACP theme for the 21st century. In our community, we work continuously to address the challenges of diversity and regionalism. This evening we will celebrate those who are the models of our theme," Franklin said.
Sharon Byrd, a member of the NAACP since March, was one of the freedom riders from East St. Louis who took the long bus ride to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which was held in August in Washington D.C. She said she joined the organization to give back to her community and to be proactive about social activities going on in the community.
Former President of the NAACP Johnnie Scott was given the Medgar Evers Award for the many years of hard work that he put in to make a difference. He headed up the local branch for 30 years.
Many others were given awards for their work in fighting for fairness and justice for everyone. The mission for the group is diversity and regionalism, economic sustainability, health, voting rights and political representation.
A lot of focus was placed on the youth. Some of them won awards for essays they wrote. Others' talents as singers were showcased. One young man, 12-year-old Lil Ralph Beck, stole the hearts of the audience when he sang Frankie Lymon's "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?"
He and several members of Triple Z, an urban music group from the Matthew Dickey Boys and Girls Club in St. Louis, wowed the crowd with their singing talents.