Human and Civil Rights Heroes Honored at NEA Annual Gala

Unsung activists are celebrated at NEA’s annual awards dinner in Boston

Last night marked the 50th anniversary of NEA’s Human and Civil Rights (HCR) Dinner where individuals and organizations are recognized for their advocacy in social justice, racial justice, and human and civil rights in communities across America. The stories of the award winners not only inspire guests of the dinner for the evening, they stay with them for a lifetime.

Recording Artist Aloe Blacc performed at the NEA Human and Civil Rights Dinner. NEA/RA Today

This year marked 50 years since the first dinner held after the historic merger of the National Education Association and the American Teachers Association (ATA), which represented black teachers in segregated schools. ATA originally created the Human and Civil Rights Awards Dinner, and, as part of the merger, NEA continues this tradition 50 years later. Since 1967, NEA has recognized and honored those who have fought — and continue to fight — for human and civil rights.

This year, NEA honored the outstanding work of 12 American social justice heroes at the HCR Awards Dinner on Saturday, July 1, in Boston. The theme of the awards dinner was “Living the Legacy: After 50 Years, Still We Rise.”

“The recipients of the 2017 Human and Civil Rights Awards embody the spirit of Dr. Maya Angelou’s beloved poem ‘Still I Rise,’” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “Through their deeds and actions, these human and civil rights heroes are still rising and carrying the torch forward. Tonight, we renew our commitment to stand for racial and social justice and pledge to continue to shed a light on their work as they guide and inspire us all.”

Immigrant Rights at Ben and Jerry’s

Reg Weaver Human and Civil Right Award recipient Wendy Marcec addresses the NEA Human and Civil Rights Dinner. NEA/RA Today

Vermont’s dairy farms are increasingly reliant on migrant workers. These year-round workers live on the farms and do many of the thankless day-to-day jobs such as servicing the milking machines, providing food for and cleaning up after the cows. Decent housing, access to transportation in rural areas, and quality health care are high on the list of worker needs.

For its efforts and success in establishing a safe and fair working environment for immigrant workers in Vermont, especially in this time of fear and uncertainty for many immigrant families, NEA awarded Migrant Justice the prestigious NEA Cesar Chavez Acción y Compromiso Human and Civil Rights AwardWatch this video of Migrant Justice as members fight for the rights and dignity of migrants working on Vermont dairy farms. To read Migrant Justice’s full bio, please click here.

Same-Sex Marriage Activist

For his monumental fight in the Obergefell v. Hodges U.S. Supreme Court case, resulting in the landmark ruling legalizing same-sex marriage across the nation, NEA awarded Jim Obergefell, a former teacher and NEA member, the Virginia Uribe Award for Creative Leadership in Human Rights. After two years of battling in court, on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is legal and protected under the United States constitution. Jim and and his partner John’s two decade-long partnership was finally recognized by the federal government. Due to Jim’s relentless commitment to his partnership and to equality, same-sex couples throughout the country are now able to celebrate their love and commitment to one another without having to fight for equal rights and protection under the law. See a moving video of Obergefell’s fight for same sex marriage here. To read his full bio, please click here.

Historian of Racism, Celebrator of Achievement

Delbert Richardson, a warehouse worker, single-handedly created a traveling African-American museum with no support from foundations, corporations, or other institutions. NEA presented Delbert Richardson with the NEA Carter G. Woodson Memorial Award for his unique and remarkable traveling African American museum. His museum, The Unspoken Truths, paints the tragedy of slavery and racial discrimination in vivid colors and, at the same time, serves as a reminder of African Americans’ many contributions to America. The traveling museum also shows how African Americans have made major contributions to American society with a section called “Still We Rise,” that features a 40-foot display presentation of everyday items invented by Black people. Watch a video about how The Unspoken Truths is reaching children and adults never before exposed up-close to their history. To read his full bio, please click here.

Working for Communities of Color, the Poor, and Racial Harmony

George I. Sanchez Memorial Award office Antonio Espejo of the Latino Peace Officers Associationd addresses the NEA Human and Civil Rights Dinner. NEA/RA Today

NEA presented the Latino Peace Officers Association of Omaha (LPOA) its prestigious NEA George I. Sánchez Award. Watch how the LPOA has built bridges of empathy to Omaha children by supporting youth soccer and baseball as well as Christmas and Easter events. To read LPOA’s full bio, please click here.

NEA awarded Kent Wong the Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial Award for his lifelong dedication to the labor movement and advancing the cause of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Watch this video of attorney and educator Kent Wong as he champions the rights of workers and immigrants while inspiring a new generation of social justice activists. To read Wong’s full bio, please click here.

The Illinois Education Association (IEA) received NEA’s prestigious Rosena J. Willis Memorial Award for bringing the issue of how brain trauma affects children’s ability to learn to the forefront of education. Watch this video about how the IEA is leading the way in bringing the science of brain trauma in children to education. To read the IEA’s full bio, please click here.

Because she is a highly respected legislator who gets work done for women of all ages, NEA honored U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin with its 2017 Mary Hatwood Futrell Human and Civil Rights AwardWatch this video of Senator Baldwin working on behalf girls, LGBT students, women, and all of her constituents. To read Baldwin’s full bio, please click here.

Because of her hard work and strong advocacy for public education and students, especially for disadvantaged children from poor families, Dr. Veronica García, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, has been awarded the NEA H. Councill Trenholm Award. Watch this video of Dr. Garcia advocating for all students, regardless of their economic or immigration status. To read her full bio, please click here.

Recognizing his life’s work for equal educational opportunity and rights for all marginalized students and educators, especially Native Americans, NEA presented Marty Meeden with the Leo Reano Memorial Human and Civil Rights Award. Watch this video of educator and Native American advocate Marty Medeen’s fight against sports mascots that are degrading and demeaning. To read his full bio, please click here.

NEA presented Wendy Marcec, a retired Tennessee educator, with its prestigious 2017 Reg Weaver Human and Civil Rights Award for her unyielding work to alleviate the effects of poverty in Appalachian Kentucky. Watch a video of Wendy Marcec as she works tirelessly for poor kids in Appalachia. To read her full bio, please click here.

Michael Joseph Franklin received the NEA Applegate-Dorros Peace and International Understanding Award for his work in educating, empowering, and improving the lives of thousands of girls and women in Honduras. When not teaching high school Spanish in Tennessee, Franklin works with women in Honduran villages helping them to create a clean water culture. Watch this video of Michael Joseph Franklin in action. To read his full bio, please click here.

Known as the “Godfather” to a generation of civil rights activists in New York and New Jersey, Dr. Lenworth Alburn Gunther III received the NEA Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Award because of his lifelong activism for racial and social justice. He pioneered African American Studies in the state’s public schools. Since retiring from teaching, he’s mentored educators and police officers on diversity. Watch a video of Dr. Gunther in action. To view his full bio, please click here.

Biographical sketches of this year’s award winners and social justice lesson plans on the work of previous winners are available at: In addition, news releases on each of the winners can be found on the NEA Press Center at:


  • Human and Civil Rights Heroes Honored at NEA Annual Gala