The Congressional Black Caucus celebrated 50 years of its Annual Legislative Conference (September 12– 17), and BET was honored to broadcast its annual Phoenix Awards.
The awards are handed out to individuals who have made significant contributions to society and equity in Black communities. This year’s awardees were notable for their fight to protect and advance Black Americans’ civil rights, especially voting rights.
The evening kicked off with a town hall hosted by The Grio’s April Ryan. The longtime White House correspondent and author set the tone from the start: We are here to celebrate how far Black Americans have come, but there is still a mighty way to go. From the inception of the CBC with just 13 members, to today’s Caucus with 4 times as many members, the expansion of political influence, Ryan noted, has unfortunately meant that some in power are actively working to disenfranchise Black voters and the gains that have been hard-won over the last 60 years.
Included on the town hall panel were President of the Black Information Network, Tony Coles; Procter & Gamble Chief Communications Officer, Damon Jones; CEO of DoSomething.org, DeNora Getachew; and activist, educator, organizer, writer and MSNBC analyst, Brittany Packnett Cunningham.
The #ALC50 theme, Black Excellence Unparalleled: Pressing Onward in Power, recognized the role Black artistic expression plays in culture and society, and the award show certainly had its share of incredible music performances. Of course, the political importance of creating a Black agenda, honoring Black voices in a democracy and protecting Black lives were key themes. Here are seven of the evening’s many highlights.
9. Wayne Brady Performing “A Change Is Gonna Come”
Five-time Emmy Award winner, game show host, and singer, Wayne Brady wowed with his rendition of the Sam Cooke anthem. Folks might not recall, but in 2009 Brady’s version of the song was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance.
8. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III
Secretary Austin is a retired United States Army four-star general. The West Point graduate is also the first African-American to serve as the US secretary of defense. He January 22, 2021. He is the first African American to serve as the United States secretary of defense.
He accepted the award on behalf of all US service members saying, “To keep America secure in today’s world, we need to draw in the full, diverse range of talents and skills and perspectives that our country has to offer. And that’s not just a matter of principle, it’s also a matter of national security.”
7. Ledisi Singing “Anything For You”
Everybody knows that Ledisi can sing. And this performance of the song that won the Grammy this year for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance made sure that everyone will be reminded how talented she is. Ledisi has been nominated for 13 Grammy awards, and she’s published a memoir chronicling how perseverance has led her to greater success.
6. Angela Bassett as host
She’s the on-screen epitome of what it means to be a powerful Black woman, and Bassett uses her positions whether as director, producer, or activist to tell the stories of Black people with dignity. The beauty is also a Yale graduate with dozens of awards that include a Golden Globe Award, seven NAACP Image Awards, and a Screen Actors Guild Award.
5. En Vogue performing “Free Your Mind”
‘Prejudice, wrote a song about it, want to hear it? Here it go.’ Some of us remember when the Funky Divas showed up on Fox’s In Living Color- the show that inspired that comedic line that introduces the anti-racism anthem. The group is widely regarded as one of the best female groups of all time, and they’ve got 30 million albums sold to date. The group looks and sounds just as amazing today as when they re-introduced the world to women singing a capella in popular music.
4. President Joe Biden
At the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Congressional Black Caucus, the 46th President of the United States reminisced that the CBC’s founding came just a few years after he was elected as the junior Senator from Delaware. Biden promised that he would be steadfast in pursuing justice for all Americans with the CBC, calling the group the “Conscience of the Congress.”
He said “The time is now to root out systemic racism that still plagues our laws, our institutions and our culture. That’s why the first executive order I signed was that every single agency of the government focus on (racial fairness.) Now time is now for a moral response to heal the soul of this nation to ensure the black Americans are fully delved into the economy and to the society they have built and shaped for centuries. (Vice President Harris) Kamala, and I have focused on this since taking office. Delivering more than $4 billion to historically black colleges and universities, nominating numerous black judges to the circuit court and Federal Courts of Appeal at a record setting pace, and reducing black poverty in America by 38%.”
3. Chaka Khan singing “I’m Every Woman”
The Queen of Funk brought it home for everyone with her ultimate power hit, “I’m Every Woman.” It was a truly fitting inclusion- Black women are the demographic who made a Biden/Harris Administration a reality, and it was the votes of Black women who kept the House for the Democratic party and made it so that the Senate would not have a Republican majority. As the GOP in nearly every state in the Union has passed, or is attempting to pass laws making it harder for Black people and for women to cast their ballots, Chaka Khan’s performance helped inject some more joy into an evening where folks were reminded of how much work is still to be done.
2. Vice President Kamala Harris
Howard University graduate, member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., former US Senator from California who is now the the 49th vice president of the United States. Vice President Harris is the highest-ranking female official in U.S. history, as well as being the first African-American and first Asian-American vice president. Of course, while serving as Senator, Harris was herself part of the CBC as well.
1. Former GA State Representative Stacey Abrahms
The politician who narrowly missed becoming the first Black woman elected to a governor’s seat, was awarded the Congressional Black Caucus Body Award. Abrams launched Fair Fight, an organization devoted to ensuring every American has a voice in the election system. Accepting her award, she made it clear that the fight will continue.
She told viewers, “Receiving the Phoenix award is a signal that the work we’re doing on voting rights and on the 2020 census has made a difference. But that difference would not have been made without the support of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, doing the work to reach out to communities that are on the margins that are too often left behind, doing the work of lifting up the necessity of not only voting, but voting for our future, and doing the work of pushing back against the big lie, but also the smaller untruths that are told too often about the value of our voices. It is always my honor to stand in solidarity with the CBC, to work together to fight together and to defend our democracy together.”
Honorable Mention: Malcolm Jamal Warner
While viewers didn’t ever get to see the show’s announcer, 80’s kids everywhere- and people who are fans of the Cosby Show- recognized the sonorous tones of Malcolm Jamal Warner. The child star turned actor, director, producer, musician, and writer has been showcasing roles that help to tell the fuller story of Black American life since the Reagan Administration. It was a delight to hear him as part of an evening celebrating Black life and Black innovation.