Soul Singers and Rocket Scientists: NAACP Celebrates Unity

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By EDDIE RIVERA, Community Editor

5:26 am | October 13, 2017


It was soul singers and rocket scientists, educators and attorneys, honored at the 32nd Annual Ruby McKnight Williams Award Dinner Thursday evening, as the Pasadena Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) honored a select handful of various community leaders at the packed International Ballroom at the Pasadena Hilton.

Named after Ruby Williams McKnight, a Pasadena African-American school teacher and civil rights activist, the annual fundraiser drew a wide swath of Pasadena’s influential, from Councilmembers John Kennedy and Tyron Hampton to Police Chief Phillip Sanchez, City Manager Steve Mermell, athletes, journalists, educators and business leaders. The awards dinner is also a scholarship fundraiser for Pasadena Unified students and other private institutions.

Ruby Williams McKnight, for whom the evening is named, was a community organizer in Pasadena for more than 50 years. She served as NAACP Pasadena Branch president, first in 1959 and later in the 1970s. It was during the seventies that the NAACP Pasadena branch supported two national precedent-setting civil rights cases.

The evening was hosted by Pasadena Weekly Deputy Editor Andre Coleman.

Coleman noted in his introduction that as he looked out at the room, he “Saw so many people that I write about all the time, on different sides of issues, and all of them are here tonight. That’s unity.”

This years prestigious Ruby McKnight Williams Awardee was given to Willis Meeks, who served as manager of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Ulysses mission to study the Sun’s poles. Meeks retired on January 29, 1996 after 30 years at JPL.

Meeks thanked his colleagues who filled the nearby tables, joking modestly that “They did all the work, while I got all the credit.”

Dr. J. Morgan Kousser, a professor of History and Social Science at the Caltech Institute of Technology and this year’s awardee in the Education category, delivered a revealing presentation on various laws and efforts to subvert the Voting Rights Act. Wading through figures and charts, Kousser essentially emphasized the fact that despite Supreme Court opposition, racial discrimination is in fact, still in place in the person of voting regulations, and that the US South is still a minefield of regulations and barriers for African-American voters.

Among the evening’s winners was Arts awardee pop/soul singer Jon B, who grew up in Pasadena, and revealed that current NAACP Pasadena President Delano Yarborough was once his principal at Elliot Middle School.

“One year he didn’t allow me to participate in the school’s talent show, because my grade weren’t good enough,” B remembered. “That really instilled me the value of always working hard.”

Long time local civil rights attorney Dale Gronemeier and his associate, Elbie “Skip” Hickambottom were also honored by the group, and Gronemeier, accepting his award, announced that he would “take a knee” during the Pledge of Allegiance at next Monday’s City Council meeting, in solidarity with NFL players who have protested the mistreatment of African Americans by police across the nation.

Along with Kousser, Meeks and B, the evening also honored educator Patricia Guzman; entrepreneur Ishmael Trone; Kin Hui, CEO of Singpoli; California State Senator Anthony Portantino, Former USC and NFL football star Ricky Ervins, and Reverend John Bledsoe, of Zion Missionary Baptist Church.

In addition, three youth awards were given to competitors in this years’ Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACTSO)— Faith Earley, who won a gold medal for original essay; Lauren Higginson, who won a silver medal for microbiology; and Kalina Jenkins Glittens, who won a bronze medal in photography.

The NAACP Pasadena Branch is a part of a network of more than 2,200 affiliates covering all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Japan and Germany with a membership of over 500,000. The California State NAACP boasts 72 branches and youth units mobilized across the state to help ensure racial justice and equality, according to the NAACP website.