GENEVA — The theme of Friday night’s NAACP Freedom Fund dinner was “When We Fight We Win,” so it was fitting the keynote speaker mentioned boxing champions Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Mike Tyson — three of whom (Ali, Frazier, and Foreman) won Olympic gold medals.
“I watched them at the peak of their careers. They worked long and hard to train for a fight,” said the Rev. Craven Rolle Jr. “Athletes train to win gold medals. We must train to compete for our gold medal.”
With the upcoming City Council elections in mind, exercising the right to vote was a key theme at the 38th annual dinner for the Geneva Area Branch of the NAACP. Rolle, known as “CJ,” is the dean of students at the Renaissance Academy Charter School of The Arts in Rochester.
Lucile Mallard, longtime president of the local NAACP branch, noted that Rolle is a gifted musician with a degree in music education from the Eastman School of Music. Last year he performed with Geneva’s Martin Luther King Jr. Choir.
While Rolle lauded King’s many contributions fighting racial inequality, he also gave a nod to the man considered King’s predecessor as a pioneering civil rights leader — Dr. Vernon Johns. He was the subject of a 1994 TV movie, “Road to Freedom: The Vernon Johns Story,” with famed actor James Earl Jones playing Johns.
“Dr. Johns said if you see a good fight, get in it ... but he also said fighting for the sake of fighting is just a waste of life,” Rolle said.
Rolle mentioned other civil rights icons such as Rosa Parks and Shirley Chisholm, who in 1968 became the first African-American woman elected to Congress. On the local front, Rolle said Mallard — who has an honorary doctorate degree — has been a champion of civil rights for decades.
“I want to thank Dr. Lucile Mallard for believing in people who don’t even believe in themselves,” Rolle said. “She fought and is still winning.”
Mallard presented Geneva NAACP Appreciation Awards to Geneva City School District Superintendent Trina Newton and Geneva City Court Judge Lisa Toole. Mallard noted that Newton and Toole have been longtime NAACP supporters.
The Clarence Day Memorial Award went to Minister Sidney Moore. The award goes annually to a male role model for young African-American men and teens.
Moore also urged African-Americans to vote in the upcoming elections, noting that less than 60% of eligible African-American voters turned out to the polls in the last presidential election.
“We have a right to be in the fight,” he said. “You need to utilize that right.”
The Mary Ann Mallard Community Service Award went to Juanita Aikens, president of the Ontario County Justice Coalition. Aikens is running for City Council.