By James Hull
In less than a week, the Mississippi Trailblazers Awards marks its 10th anniversary of recognizing Mississippians for their contributions to diversity by honoring federal Judge James Graves as the Mississippi Trailblazer of the Decade, and eight other Mississippians.
The event also will recognize former University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert C. Khayat’s leadership in diversity and racial reconciliation by presenting an award bearing his name to Episcopal Church leaders former Bishop Duncan Gray Jr. and his son, current Bishop Duncan Gray III. Rev Gray Jr., bravely confronted violent rioters who opposed James Meredith’s 1962 integration of the University of Mississippi. His son, Duncan III, has continued on his father’s legacy in race relations.
Since 2003, The Mississippi Trailblazers has honored dozens of distinguished Mississippians including:
• Judge Sharion Aycock, Mississippi’s first female federal Judge.
• Maj. Gen. Augustus L. Collins, honored in 2006 for leading the state’s National Guard into combat in Iraq and again in 2011 for being named the state’s first African-American adjutant general.
• Dr. Bettye Coward, who broke the glass ceiling by becoming Blue Mountain College’s first female president.
• Dr. Dolphus Weary who formed “Mission Mississippi” solely for the purpose of racial reconciliation in the body of Christ.
• ICC’s Carrie Ball, named among the first Mississippi Trailblazers in 2003, for being the state’s first and only female athletic director. Then-Ole Miss head basketball coach Rod Barnes was also a member of that inaugural class.
• Choctaw Chief Phyllis Anderson, who leads, arguably, the state’s most successful business conglomerate.
Over the years, such notables as Tupelo’s John Armistead, Columbus’ Lenore Prather, Kosciusko’s Dr. Katrina Poe, Hattiesburg’s Percy Watson, Tupelo’s Aubrey Patterson, and Amory’s Sam Haskell, have been recognized for bridging the divides of race, gender, religion, socio-economics and regionalism; and for increasing our understanding of each other, despite our differences.
And while the supporters of the Mississippi Trailblazers have helped the event come a long way – from eating out of paper plates in 2003 – in Tupelo Furniture Market space generously provided by eventual 2010 Trailblazer V.M. Cleveland – to the BancorpSouth Conference Center – unfortunately, we still have a long way to go before more of us give support that goes beyond mere lip service.
Supporting such programs as the Mississippi Trailblazers should be something our state’s corporate leaders, civic leaders, industries and agencies literally buy into. Why? Because supporting programs which promote diversity reflects our growth and maturity as one people with many differences, not many different people divided by those differences.
During the past 10 years of the Mississippi Trailblazers Awards, I’ve seen Republicans honor Democrat and former Speaker of the House Billy McCoy, for his many years of service to our state and to north Mississippi.
I’ve seen blacks and whites put their differences aside long enough to socialize for a few hours, only to develop lasting relationships which grew beyond the banquet hall.
I’ve observed how people of different hues, creeds and backgrounds have taken the time to acknowledge the work and contributions of individuals they never knew and end up honoring those individuals with genuine admiration and respect.
The diversity celebrated each year at the Mississippi Trailblazers Awards reflects the culture of and commitment to diversity which CEOs, board chairmen and corporate leaders promote in their respective organizations.
It brings attention to the many different peoples of race, gender, cultural and ethnic backgrounds who successfully work together in the board room, the operating room and the court room.
It recognizes women overcoming the barriers of gender discrimination and minorities dispelling skepticisms of racial bias. It acknowledges the notion that no single race has all the answers, no single gender can fill all the leadership positions and no single set of ideas should dominate the public discourse. It celebrates inclusiveness and mutual respect.
The Mississippi Trailblazers gives us the opportunity to step out of our comfort zones of race, hyper-partisanship and personal ideology, and say “Thank You” to those who make our state great by projecting positive, inclusive messages, not negative, divisive images.
For the past 10 years, the Mississippi Trailblazer has proved that opposites can, indeed, come together.
The REV. JAMES HULL is award-winning journalist and president of The Mississippi Trailblazers organization.