SPRINGFIELD – Even as February winds down, state officials want to make sure Illinoisans don’t forget about Black History Month.
Treasurer Michael Frerichs presented seven high-achieving black Illinoisans with awards this week in the state Capitol, as recipients and other speakers celebrated black history and urged the fight for equality to continue.
“This is a critical turning point in our state’s and country’s history,” keynote speaker and Eureka College president Jamel Wright said outside Peoria on Thursday. “We have a responsibility to make our votes count and our voices heard.”
Wright, who became the college’s first black – and female – president in 2017, reflected on the importance of voting rights more than half a century after the Civil Rights Movement.
“While there was deeply rooted racism and resistance in the South,” Wright said, “Illinois’ history is one of leading from the front in terms of voting rights, coalition building and electing African-Americans to office.”
She said this election year is a chance for black voters to “reclaim the ballot,” paying homage to famed civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Give Us The Ballot” speech from 1957.
“Reclaim the ballot because we understand that our fight isn’t only a black fight, it’s not only a woman’s fight. This is a justice fight,” she said, “a fight for the value of civil discourse, respect for humanity, and empowerment of the innovative spirit.”
A wide range of people received awards, from political and labor leaders to a local business owner and a professional athlete. Among the most well-known recipients were professional football player Malik Turner and Decatur school board member, the Rev. Courtney Carson.
“I believe that education extends itself outside of the classroom, into the heart of the community,” Carson said.
The Decatur native made national headlines in 2017 when he was elected to the board of the school district that once expelled him for gang violence. Now a Baptist preacher and an administrator at Richland Community College, Carson raised awareness of the education and poverty issues facing black people.
“Where I come from, I see historical patterns of poverty, which restricts certain populations to access to prosperity,” he said. “I feel that I’m called by God to fight the objective conditions that hurt, harm and hinder our students’ educational experience.”
Turner, a graduate of Springfield’s Sacred Heart-Griffin High School and the University of Illinois, is a wide receiver for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. He said he wants to give back to the community that helped him achieve his goals.
“I hope to accomplish things not just on the field, but off the field. And with the platform I’m given, hopefully I can be seen in this community as more than just an athlete,” Turner said.
Also receiving awards were state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, a Democrat from Peoria; Nikita Richards, a Bloomington resident who serves on the Illinois Council on Women and Girls; Bonnie Hester, who represents AFSCME union retirees on the West Central Illinois Labor Council board; Maurice Bridges, a U.S. Air Force veteran who works with fellow veterans at the Veterans of Foreign Wars; and Andrew Sforza, a barbershop owner in Springfield.
Richards is a U.S. Navy veteran and Chicago native who advocates for the health and safety of young people. She spoke about the importance of empowering young black women.
“None of what we’re doing is for ourselves,” she said, “and we shouldn’t keep it to ourselves. I pray that we all think about the next generation of leaders as we continue this great work.”
The annual celebration organized by the treasurer’s office is held in the Capitol Rotunda, which Frerichs said serves a symbolic purpose.
“This is a building that belongs to all residents of the state,” he said. “That’s where these stories should be heard.”
“Perhaps someone walking through here who did not simply come out for a Black History Month celebration will hear about some of the accomplishments of our honorees today,” Frerichs continued. “In hearing their stories, maybe there might be a group of kids passing through who realize all the different areas where they can succeed.”