1964 Freedom Summer participant and surviving member of 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike among recipients
During the 1964 Freedom Summer, Charles Prickett risked his life to help African Americans register to vote, joining thousands of other young people in Mississippi, to provide remedial education in the form of “Freedom Schools.” There, these young people would help African Americans work on improving literacy, so that they would be able to vote.
Mississippi was notorious for denying voter access through racist literacy tests, poll taxes, and, at times, even gun shots. Prickett not only registered hundreds of new voters, he also helped black farmers gain access to federally subsidized farm programs and marched over the Edmund Pettus bridge to Selma on Bloody Sunday.
For his heroic work, Prickett received the Carter G. Woodson Memorial Award in recognition of a life dedicated to the service of others, one of the National Education Association’s most prestigious NEA Human and Civil Rights Awards.
Since 1967, the NEA has recognized and honored everyday heroes who have fought—and continue to fight—for human and civil rights across the country. This year, NEA acknowledged 12 outstanding social justice champions at its Human and Civil Rights Awards ceremony Wednesday, July 3, 2019, in the General Assembly Theater at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas.
“Dr. Charles Prickett is an inspirational example of what activism can achieve,” said Lily Eskelsen García, NEA president. “His work as a young person during the Civil Rights Movement was brave and vital, and we are grateful that he shares his stunning stories in a way that continually inspires others. Dr. Prickett is a reminder that we can all take action, join movements we are passionate about, and truly make meaningful change.”
Another of the twelve honorees is youth counselor and activist Eddy Zheng, whose story is a testament to life’s second chances, the transformative power of education, and the immigrant communities’ positive contributions to American society.
Arriving in the United States from China at the age of twelve, Zheng was the youngest of a family of five in a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland, California, who spoke no English in a world often not accepting of so-called “outsiders.” The only thing that provided a sense of belonging was a street life with other alienated Asian youth, but his involvement in a violent home invasion resulted in a sentence of seven years to life in San Quentin State Prison at the age of 16; at the time the youngest inmate of the notorious facility.
Determined to change his course and take ownership of his future, Eddy turned into a model prisoner, improving his English skills, becoming a voracious reader, and earning a GED and associate’s degree. He also became a trusted mentor to other prisoners, setting up an Asian American Ethnic Studies program in the prison college curriculum, and holding crime prevention workshops for at-risk immigrant youth on how to break the cycle of incarceration.
He was paroled after twenty years, at which point Zheng dedicated his life to youth advocacy work. He became a project manager at San Francisco’s Community Youth Center, where he mentored youth on the importance of education, as well as honoring one’s own roots and community. Zheng’s wisdom helped to manifest an anthology of poetry and essays from himself and other Asian American & Pacific Islander inmates, titled Other.
Zheng was awarded the NEA Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial Award.
“Eddy Zheng is a true inspiration and is incredibly deserving of this award,” Eskelsen García said. “His journey to this moment could have not have been possible without perseverance and true passion to make the world a better, fairer place. His efforts are extremely motivating and energize us to never abandon the pursuit of making a difference.”
All twelve recipients are motivating and energizing and their stories of their work to achieve justice in schools and communities across the country inspired those gathered at the awards ceremony.
“The recipients of the 2019 NEA Human and Civil Rights Awards are social justice champions, forging paths for opportunities for every student in every school no matter their ZIP code, and standing up against injustices everywhere,” said Eskelsen García. “We proudly honor their contributions and sacrifices. By embodying what is right and just about the world in which we live, they motivate us to purposeful and principled action.”
Watch video tributes of the 2019 recipients