A head full of white hair added to the whiteness of my body from head to toe; and even covered with a new black suit and snazzy blue vest, socks, kerchief, and tie, I stood out in the sea of black that gathered last week in Atlanta. There was perhaps a dozen of us white folk celebrating with at least one thousand black folk in what was surely one of the most inspirational evenings I have experienced in a very long time.
“I will pledge $500,000,” one speaker announced, after telling the story of his own student days, then added, “And I will give another $500,000 to keep alive the memory of my best friend, whose untimely death prevented him from returning for his sophomore year.”
The crowd broke out in cheers at both declarations and we all jumped to our feet and clapped. His name was Verdun S. Perry, Senior Managing Director and Global Head of Strategic Partners, at the global investment firm Blackstone. He is also a Morehouse Man, class of 1994.
The occasion was the annual Gala. I went because my dear friend Lawrence Carter was being recognized for 40 years of service as dean of the chapel for the Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel on the campus of Morehouse. He was honored with the prestigious Candle Award for Mission and Ministry. The gathering was, appropriately, the 32nd Annual “Candle in the Dark” Gala.
Carter welcomed me, sight unseen, when I called the chapel in 2009 while on my Atlanta road trip to introduce the newly launched Academy of Preachers. He heard about my pitch, knew it was what his students needed, and invited me to address his Chapel Assistants during their Thursday afternoon session. Among them were Willie Francois, Reginald Sharpe, Nicholas Richards, David McGruder, and Tyron McGowan, all of whom showed up and preached at the inaugural Festival on Young Preachers in January of 2010.
Carter graced me a $400 ticket to the Gala, but going was still not cheap: suit and accessories, gas and food, and overnight accommodations push my costs to more than the ticket. But then something else happened that busted my event budget.
Adebayo O Ogunlesi got up to speak. He is Chairman and Managing Partner at Global Infrastructure Partners (and a lawyer who once clerked for Thurgood Marshall of the United States Supreme Court). His page of accomplishments (including degrees from Oxford and Harvard) matched that of three other men honored that night:
Eddie S Glaude, Jr. class of ’89, now the chair of the Department of African American Studies and the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor at Princeton University;
Alvan Holsey Jr. class of ’88, now rear admiral, and commander of the United States Navy Carrier Strike Group, stationed at San Diego, California; and
Lonnie G. Bunch III, the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC and the former Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
It was as impressive a line up of distinguished people as I have ever seen in one room, on one occasion, speaking on behalf of one institution. The famed Morehouse College was established in 1867 as one of the first of the 107 institutions now grouped together as the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). (Others include Howard in DC, Fisk and Tennessee State in Nashville, and Simmons and Kentucky State in Kentucky).
Over the years, the list of honorees has included such as Quincy Jones, Muhammad Ali, Julian Bond, Samuel L Jackson, Bernard Shaw, Andrew Young, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Cornel West, Reggie White, Samuel Proctor, Louis Gossett Jr., John Hope Franklin, Otis Moss, Jr, Spike Lee, Hank Aaron, Denzel Washington, Calvin O. Butts, Louis Sullivan, Danny Glover, Bo Jackson, Henry Louis Gates, Jr, Ben Carson, Tony Dorsett, Ray Charles, Harry Belafonte, Charles Adams, Dick Gregory, Ed Bradley, Robert L. Johnson, Oprah Winfrey, Joseph Lowery, Sidney Poitier, Smokey Robinson, and dozens of others who achieved distinction in business, science, education, ministry, arts, and public service.
It is hard to image a list of luminaries more compelling than those who have attended a “Candle in the Dark” gala to celebrate their own contributions to the common good. It is also hard to imagine a more compelling case for contributing to Morehouse College, which seemed to be the conclusion drawn also by the last honoree, the aforementioned Adebayo O. Ogunlesi—he capped off the testimonials with his own pledge, apparently spontaneous, of one million dollars!!
The Morehouse student jazz ensemble played, and after I left (about eleven in the evening) people took to the dance floor and had a good time. But on my way out, I pulled aside Terry Walker, administrator at the King Chapel and associate of Dean Carter, and said: “I’m making my own pledge, to exceed at least the cost of my dinner ticket. Thank you for making this event possible for me.”
Altogether, we raised that night $3.85+ million, not counting my pledge, of course, and others still coming in! What a night! I felt right at home, white hair and all.