It was a night for celebration at the 54th Annual Human Rights Award Banquet, where the NAACP Washington branch honored former Pennsylvania Human Relations Committee regional director George Simmons with the Human Rights Award and held a moment of silence for 10-year-old Ta’Niyah Thomas, who was killed March 31 during a home invasion.
Simmons was the recipient of the Human Rights Award Friday at the DoubleTree by Hilton in North Strabane Township, in recognition of his community service and dedication to the protection and enforcement of civil and human rights for all people.
Sen. Vincent J. Hughes, D-76th District, who has spent much of his career working on the issues of higher education, HIV/AIDS, mental health in the African-American community and job creation, delivered the dinner’s keynote address.
Serving as mistress of ceremonies was Washington County Deputy District Attorney Traci McDonald.
Simmons accepted the award and thanked members of his family and the African-American community who served as mentors for him as he grew up.
Now suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Simmons talked about the work of the NAACP since its inception to fight racism and discrimination, and how insignificant the color of skin is, especially when faced with an illness like Parkinson’s, which strikes people of all color.
“The biggest mystery is why people treat people differently because of the color of your skin,” he said.
Simmons is a graduate of California University of Pennsylvania and attended law school at the University of Pittsburgh, where he also attended graduate school for public and international affairs. After 36 years, he retired as regional director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. Simmons helped direct efforts in 23 Western Pennsylvania counties through the Pittsburgh regional office.
Hughes, who serves as Democratic Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has played a major role in raising awareness for HIV/AIDS, securing the largest increases in HIV funding in the history of the state, and he founded the “Breaking the Silence” summit to shed light on the issue and impact of mental health for African-Americans.
“Thank you, NAACP, for the work you do,” Hughes repeated throughout his fiery, nearly 45-minute speech, where he talked about the discrimination that still faces African-Americans and discussed recent activity by the Ku Klux Klan in Canonsburg and the actions of Los Angeles Clippers president Donald Sterling.
Hughes talked about the NAACP’s efforts in voter registration and the Voters Registration Act, the Affordable Care Act, and funding for public education.
“Thank you NAACP, for fighting the fight, for talking about creating jobs and making sure that no one is left out of the conversation, and for not allowing discrimination based on race or circumstance,” said Hughes.
He spoke of his visit to the White House with his wife to meet with President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle, and how 100 years ago that would not have been possible.
“One hundred years ago, there were lynchings all over the nation. Fifty years ago, there was not free access to the ballot. Fifty years later, there’s an African-American as president. It’s a testimony that all people can transform themselves, we can overcome, we can make it through … NAACP, if it wasn’t for you all, that moment yesterday would not have existed.”