Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The moment is still frozen in time with me. That moment happened several years ago when a throng of friends, relatives and admirers gathered at a medical facility in the San Fernando Valley to honor and pay homage to Willis Edwards, a long time NAACP national board member, and relentless fighter for civil rights. Willis was terminally ill, and a group of friends were determined to honor Willis in his presence. For the hour or so we were there, Willis never stopped smiling, talking, and reveling in the glow of the love and appreciation that his many admirers showered on him that day. It brought a joy to him and all present that could only be described as moving and magical. The important thing was that Willis was there to enjoy that moment. And he did.
I thought of that magical moment when I heard that there was a groundswell of support for making an honorary designation of a street or public space in Inglewood after Stevie Wonder. Stevie’s place in musical history is well-established. His accomplishments, his influence, his innovation, and his ground-breaking first in the music world are the stuff of not just high praise and recognition, but of legend. The honors he has received for his musical contributions fill several storehouses.
However, it’s not Stevie the music icon that has been the most gripping and compelling aspect of his life for me. It is Stevie as humanitarian and social activist that has truly marked him in my eyes as a man for the ages. He has been unfailing in putting his name, reputation, and music behind a telephone book size list of civil rights actions through the years. The long fight for a national holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. readily comes to mind. Stevie was a driving force behind that campaign. He sang, lobbied, and participated in countless actions to make the holiday a reality. But there have been many other causes and crusades that Stevie has openly and quietly lent his name too.
President Obama certainly recognized that when he strapped the Presidential Medal of Freedom around Stevie’s neck in a White House ceremony. But there’s more to the Wonder story than civil rights activism. And it’s this story that underscores the call for an honorary designation in Inglewood for Stevie.
Stevie could have rested on his towering laurels as a musician and artist and basked in the plaudits for his civil rights work. But he understood that empowering a community is a crucial need. Enter KJLH. The station has carried Stevie’s imprint and stamp on it for decades. Whether it is raising money for a cause, promoting an event, or supporting groups and individuals working on community uplift causes and issues from the fight against homelessness too health care awareness, one can count on the ubiquitous KJLH van and personnel being at the scene. The event or action would be broadcast live on the station.
Stevie ses the mission of media as not just music and entertainment but informing, educating, mobilizing, and spurring a community to action. Buy putting his money and his energy into creating and sustaining a viable African American owned business in Inglewood, Stevie sends a strong message that he believes deeply in the importance and need to build strong Black owned economic institutions. This is especially important given that Black owned radio stations and media outlets nationally are disappearing or disappeared faster than the Dodo Bird. Most were bought out by the major media conglomerates. In almost all cases the first to go was the meaty social and political talk programming that Black listeners relied on for years to stay informed on the issues. Instead listeners are now fed a steady diet of celebrity gossip, chit chat, party time and formula music. In short, the dumbing down of Black media. Stevie would have none of that and has stayed the course on his mission of providing a continuing model of public service to the community.
There’s one other issue in the call for Inglewood to honor Stevie with a street designation while he is still very much a presence in the community. That is how we honor our historical giants, sheroes and heroes while they are still living. I think of Willis when this question comes up. Yes, it would have been nice and certainly appropriate to have a public place –be it a street, park or building- named after someone of the stature of Willis after his transition. This is what’s typically the case. But that smile on his face, and that of the throngs that gathered that day to honor him, was priceless and eternally locked in time. It was doubly sweet for him and us because he was there to enjoy that moment. The same will be said for Stevie if Inglewood heeds the call for an honorary street designation for him. He deserves it. Inglewood deserves it. And history deserves it. This will bring a smile to all.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of The Impeachment of President Trump? (Amazon Kindle).https://www.amazon.com/dp/B075XSXJM8 He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.