16th Annual Ford Freedom Award winners: My peek inside their lives

(WXYZ) - For the past few months I’ve been getting ready for the 16th annual Ford Freedom Award events. Wednesday, May 21, is the big day. Detroit’s Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts will be the main venue. 

The honorees will be former South African President Nelson Mandela, civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams and 92-year old Tuskegee Airman and former World War II POW Lt. Colonel Alexander Jefferson. 

It’s a great group and I’ve seen every one of them up close!

I remember the very first year of the Ford Freedom Award project.  Back then it was just an idea in its infancy.

The late Mayor Coleman A. Young was paired up with Ford Freedom Scholar Rev. Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. The years in between 1999 and 2014 have celebrated the accomplishments of outstanding leaders in all fields of endeavor. 

This year “The Power of Perseverance” theme links Mandela, Evers-Williams and Jefferson together, not their individual professions. And for the first time since the Ford Freedom Awards began the famous name that will be entered into the “Ring of Genealogy” floor of The Wright Museum is an African, not an African-American.

Nelson Mandela, the great freedom fighter, was born in South Africa. To his credit, he spent his entire life forcing his country into democratic rule. He was always prepared to die protesting against the harsh realities of Apartheid. 

Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of the late Medgar Evers, Mississippi’s first NAACP field secretary, is one of the classiest people I have ever interviewed.  Her strength, integrity, and humor are unmatched.  What she has accomplished on her own since Medgar’s assassination is the real story.

And who could ever forget Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson.  He is so sharp that I had to keep reminding myself that he flew his World War II missions in the 1940’s, not last year. I hope I bounce around the nation as easily as he does, if I get the chance to turn 92. 

All three honorees are a reminder of why we originally founded the Ford Freedom Awards. We want people to never lose sight of how far America has come. 

But we also wanted it to be a warning - Don’t take the accomplishments of our former leaders for granted.

History can, and does, repeat itself.

If you’re in need of an inspirational boost, you should be at the Music Hall on Wednesday night. Myrlie Evers-Williams, Alexander Jefferson, and Nelson Mandela’s grandson, will rock you!

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