News & Politics

A Night Out: Spirit of Democracy Awards

We enjoyed a moving tribute to civil-rights legend Dorothy Height and celebration of civic participation in the African American community. Read on to find out who was there and what they said.

Michael Strautmanis, chief of staff for the assistant to the president for Intergovernmental Relations and Public Engagement. Photograph by Kyle Gustafson.

What: The 14th annual Spirit of Democracy Awards, presented by the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.

Where: The Renaissance Hotel in downtown DC.

When: Wednesday, May 19, 6:30 to 10:30.

Ticket price: $175.

Attire: Women wore high-powered office attire, and men were decked in pinstripes.

Who: Washington’s African American elite mingled and dined at the benefit gala celebrating the presentation of five Spirit of Democracy Awards to honor achievements in corporate leadership, economic and community empowerment, and black-civic-participation trailblazers. A special Chairman’s Circle award was presented to Representative William Lacy Clay, Jr. of St. Louis for his dedication to minorities in his home community. Everyone felt the absence of civil-rights matriarch Dorothy I. Height, a founding board member of the organization and the 2009 ceremony’s honorary chair. Height was repeatedly eulogized by nearly everyone who took the podium, including Mistress of Ceremonies LaToya Foster, Southeast Tennis and Learning Center founder Cora Masters Barry, and Michael Strautmanis, chief of staff for the assistant to the president for Intergovernmental Relations and Public Engagement.

Scene: The Renaissance ballroom, glistening under chandeliers, was filled with tables draped in navy cloth. Elegant but simple flower arrangements sat in the middle of each table, and at each place setting sat a scroll with a speech given by Height on election night in 2008. A live band featuring the sultry sounds of Julia Nixon, a jazz singer and Washington fixture for more than 20 years, played throughout the evening.

Food and drink: Ravenous diners queued at a generous buffet, which featured cheese tortellini in a sage cream sauce, braised lamb, grilled vegetables, and a carving station with beef. A decadent dessert included strawberries dipped in both milk and white chocolate, delicate petits fours with a chocolate glaze, and mini pecan- and key-lime-pie squares.

Most touching moment: The organization’s interim chairman, Richard M. Womack, paid homage to Height, calling her the “queen mother” and “esteemed leader” of the civil-rights movement. He asked patrons to “think of her as an eagle because sparrows fly in flocks. Eagles fly alone.”

Cutest moment: Seven-year-old Leah Long, a young tennis scholar at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, gave a costumed rendition of Height that described the civil-rights leader’s life and accomplishments. No detail was spared, including Height’s famous penchant for hats and flowery dialect. Hardly a face in the house wasn’t grinning from ear to ear.

Most political moment: Strautmanis offered greetings from the White House and shared his feelings about our country’s first African American President. He also took the opportunity to assure the audience that President Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan, was indeed a devoted partner in the fight for civil rights. This was in response to a letter delivered to the President last week by the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, in which the organization expressed concern over Kagan’s record on equal-rights protection.

Boldface guests: 2 (out of 5)
Swankiness: 3 (out of 5)
Food and drinks: 3 (out of 5)
Overall exclusivity: 2 (out of 5)
Total score: 10 (out of 20)

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