Civil rights champions honored at Heritage Awards

Civil rights champions honored at Heritage Awards

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Mississippi Power paid tribute to four iconic individuals for their pioneering work in advancing the causes of human and civil rights at the 2017 Heritage Awards Saturday night.

This year’s honorees, Victoria Gray AdamsLawrence Guyot Jr.Col. Lawrence Roberts and Lucimarian Tolliver Roberts all stood as symbols of hope and perseverance in the face of tough circumstances.

“Every one of us stands on the shoulders of these heroes,” said New Orleans television celebrity and South Mississippi native Sally-Ann Roberts, who was present to see her parents recognized. “We stand on their shoulders because they were on a mission, and they faced the challenges. We are all here on our own mission. You can also be that hero, so rise to the occasion.”

Approximately 500 people attended the banquet at the Beau Rivage, including numerous family members of the honorees, who saw their loved ones posthumously recognized during an emotional evening of tears and solemn memories.

“Their stories inspire us and teach us, and their courage and sacrifices changed many of us,” said Dr. Rod Paige, the evening’s keynote speaker. “This event helps us remember these heroes. We have a lot to learn from them.”

Paige, a Mississippi native, is the interim president at Jackson State University. Before that, he was a teacher, a college dean and a school superintendent who eventually became the first African-American to serve as United States Secretary of Education.

Mississippi Power President and CEO Anthony Wilson presented Heritage Awards to the families of each honoree.

“These Heritage Award recipients left an enduring legacy of commitment to community service and an unwavering vision of a better Mississippi and a better nation,” Wilson said. “They endured turmoil and strife, so that legacy can live on through their families and through all of us.”

Here’s a closer look at each Heritage Award winner:

Victoria Gray Adams (1926-2006)

The Palmers Crossing, Miss. native became one of the most recognized civil rights activists in Mississippi during the 1960’s. She was a key figure in Mississippi’s Freedom Summer and as the first woman from the state to run for the U.S. Senate.

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In 1962, she became a full-time filed secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Her role was to teach literacy so that blacks could register to vote and organize boycotts of businesses in the Hattiesburg area.

“She took on the work and had the enthusiasm to do it,” said Rev. Edwin King, a fellow civil rights advocate. “She enabled others, and saw her role as a teacher and foundation leader.”

Adams and others founded the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party to challenge segregationist politicians. Although she lost to Sen. John Stennis in a 1964 congressional election bid, the party went on to challenge for representation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

Four years later, Mississippi seated an integrated delegation at the Democratic convention for the first time.

“When she spoke to groups, she always began by talking about her faith,” King added. “She referred to herself as being born in Mississippi and born as a conscientious objector to injustice.She was a rock to the rest of us, and to the people she served.She knew she was risking her life, but she also knew she was not alone in the fight.”

Lawrence Guyot, Jr. (1939-2012)

Lawrence Guyot was a political activist, community organizer and leader in Mississippi’s civil rights movement. 02_13_Guyot

The Pass Christian native endured numerous arrests, violent beatings and death threats in the fight for African-American voting rights and political representation.

“The mission was to help get black people the right to vote,” said fellow civil rights activist Flonzie Brown-Right. “We did that because we knew that was the key to other opportunities.”

Guyot began working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1962. A year later he and several others were severely beaten by police in a Winona, Miss. jail.

He eventually became director of the 1964 Freedom Summer Project in Hattiesburg and was the founding chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

After the party’s challenge of political injustice at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Guyot ran for a congressional seat in 1996 and lost, but that effort helped him gain full credentials as a member of the Mississippi delegation at the 1968 Democratic convention.

“He didn’t see not being elected as a defeat,” Brown-Right said. “He saw it as a step forward. He was a multi-dimensional person with one single purpose in mind, and that was to make life better for people who had no voice. Lawrence will long be remembered as a person who suffered inhumane treatment but never allowed that treatment to intimidate or discourage him.”

Col. Lawrence Roberts (1922-2004)

Col. Lawrence Roberts, one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen who helped desegregate the military is described by his family as “a man of service, a man of God and a man who loved his family.”

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In 2007, President George W. Bush honored Roberts and other Tuskegee airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal, the legislature’s highest civilian award.

Born in Vauxhall, N.J., Roberts’ military career began when he entered the United States Army Air Corps as a Pre-Aviation Cadet Private at Keesler Field in Biloxi in 1943. He was then assigned to the Tuskegee Airman pilot program in 1944.

“He loved this country and was very patriotic,” said Robin Roberts, one of their four children. “Being a Tuskegee Airman changed his life, and it changed the world. The children of World War II knew that he and his fellow airmen brought their parents and grandparents home safely from dangerous missions.”

Roberts also served in Vietnam and was awarded the Republic of Vietnam Air Force Distinguished Service Order Second Class Award.

“He respected everyone in his command,” Robin Roberts added. “He always said those under him didn’t work for him, they worked with him.”

He retired from active duty in 1975 back at Keesler where his military career began, and saw the only Mississippi Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Club named in his honor at Keesler. The base’s 403rd wing was also named in his honor.

Lucimarian Tolliver Roberts (1924-2012)

Lucimarian Tolliver Roberts is remembered as a beloved military wife, mother, author and community leader on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

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Her inspirational memoir “My Story, My Song: Mother-Daughter reflections on Life and Earth” details pivotal moments in her life and summarizes her resilience, her faith and generations of joy. Each chapter of the book is summarized by daughter Robin.

“She was born in Akron, Ohio, but always called Mississippi home,” said daughter Dorothy Roberts. “Our mother was a child of God, a gracious servant, a compassionate wife, a mother, leader and musician. She led a life of making people feel good.”

Roberts devoted much of her adult life to community service along with roles as a college counselor and educator.

“She loved serving on boards, bringing entertainers to the coast and helping people,” daughter Dorothy added. “She always believed that by serving, you get to know your community.”

She was the first African-American to serve as chair of Mississippi’s Board of Education and worked with numerous community and service organizations, including stints as chair of the Mississippi Coast Coliseum Commission and as a member of the board of directors at Mississippi Power.

Roberts received many awards and honors throughout her life, including the 2011 NAACP Medgar Evers Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2011 Mississippi Medal of Service.

According to her children, some of Roberts’ sage advice included phrases like “what other people think of you is none of your business” and “make your mess your message.”