This story was updated at 10:27 a.m. Wednesday.
In a keynote speech that combined the power of a sermon and the light-heartedness of a stand-up comedy set, the Rev. Al Sharpton reminded members of the Hamilton County NAACP that what today's black Americans leave behind as a legacy is as important as ever.
"So often we forget those that lead the way for us. We get caught up in the moment and forget that all of us are here only for a fleeting moment in history," Sharpton said. "If you can make a contribution that will be remembered, then you'll be thankful, because you'll be gone longer than you'll be here."
It was one of the heavier sentiments Sharpton shared during his hourlong speech Tuesday night to the sold-out Chattanooga Convention Center audience for the 32nd annual Ruby Hurley Image Awards.
But as often as he would deliver a powerful lesson, he routinely would bookend it with a softer touch.
"If all you do in life is for you, think about it," Sharpton said. "You bought you a nice house and your house is on the market about a week after you're gone."
The crowd hung on every word of the internationally renowned civil rights leader and founder of the National Action Network.
Tuesday's speech from Sharpton was titled "Getting Above and Beyond Disparities," and he talked about a wide variety of topics, from having faith in a troubled world and the obligation people have to help each other to having confidence in a better country after the 2020 presidential election and hip-hop culture.
One theme Sharpton continued to touch on was how instrumental the NAACP has been in the face of segregation and oppression in the United States. He mentioned that 2019 marks the 400th anniversary of the first slaves coming to America in 1619.
He railed against President Donald Trump's rhetoric on immigration and talked about how challenging it has been for black people in America dating back to the very beginning.
"We didn't sneak across the border, they dragged us across the border," he said. "That's why we have the NAACP. That's why we should not step back [or] stand back to anybody. We ought to keep it going because we deserve it and we owe it to those who preceded us."
Even in the face of abuse, the NAACP has led the way for black Americans to know their worth and to fight for what is right, Sharpton said.
One of the biggest reactions of the night came when Sharpton told a story of when he was invited to President Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009.
Sharpton was sitting in front of some members of Congress. Obama had famously decided to use two Bibles for his swearing-in ceremony. One belonged to Abraham Lincoln and the other to Martin Luther King Jr.
Sharpton said a member of Congress told him how monumental the moment was, how significant the two Bibles were.
Sharpton agreed that it was a significant moment in the history of America. But while the two Bibles contained the same message, same chapters, same verses, the paths they took could not have been more different.
One was placed on a mantle by a dignified president, Sharpton explained, and the other traveled the red clay back roads of Alabama with Dr. King and had a jail cell inscription number on the inside front cover.
Sharpton reminded the audience that everyone has a legacy and that the honorees Tuesday night are shining examples of what happens when hard work and service are put out into the world.
The Ruby Hurley Image Awards began 32 years ago to recognize community leaders for their activism and dedication to improve the quality of life for their fellow man.
Honorees are nominated by community members, vetted and voted on by NAACP executive committee members. The awards are dedicated to Ruby Hurley, an activist during the Civil Rights Movement and a dedicated NAACP member.
Another civil rights icon figured prominently in a story Sharpton told of how he flew to Chattanooga.
"I ride first class out of honor to Rosa Parks," he said. "I don't ride in the back of nothing."
The crowd went wild.
Contact Patrick Filbin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.
Winners at the 32nd Annual Ruby Hurley Image Awards
Humanitarians of the Year:
Mariah Huq, Bishop Kevin Adams
James R. Mapp Citizen of the Year:
The Rev. Carlos Williams
Ralph Cothran Offficer of the Year Civil Service Award:
- Chattanooga Police Department Lieutenant Bakari Welles and Officer Terrance Tumlin
- Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Detective Yolanda Ward
- Chattanooga Fire Department Lieutenant Danulius Usher
- U.S. Federal Probation Officer Tony Anderson
Hannah Martin Spirit of Dedication Award:
Amanda "Vickie" Mathis
Business Person of the Year:
Educator of the Year:
Dr. LeAndrea Ware
Political Action Award:
The President Award:
Viola Mapp Membership of the Year Award:
ACT-SO Arts Award:
- John Paul Freeman
- Kirsten Mendoza
Community Youth Activist Award:
- Clayton Mason III
- Ty Armour
- Thessela White
Reginald "Reggie" White Athletic Award:
- Timekos Baker, Baylor High School
- Ja'Nya West, Central High School
CB Robinson Ambassador Award: Dr. Elenora Woods
NAACP Ambassador Award: Attorney Robin Flores
NAACP Diversity and Inclusion Image Award : Elizabeth Appling