Much like the Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, Grammys and others, the Image Awards is an annual high-fashion affair honoring people of merit for outstanding achievements in the worlds of entertainment and social justice.
This year’s event was held on Monday, Jan. 15 — the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium.
Many might not know this, but there is a great deal of history behind this event, now a mainstay among annual awards programs.
For that reason, it was decided by PW staff to treat this column not as a news article but as history lesson about the awards program and publish it in the last week of February — Black History Month. The hope is to reach more people who otherwise might not know just how important this program really is.
The Image Awards were always meant to reward good work, but unlike other awards shows it was also designed to advance a positive image of African Americans and other marginalized people working in the world of arts and entertainment.
Its founders were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), men and women who understood that before any awards shows could be produced, many civil, social, and political obstacles had to be overcome. The NAACP, whose purpose was and is “to ensure the political, social and economic equality of rights for all persons, and to eliminate racial hatred,” according to its website, was the backbone needed to overcome many of these hurdles.
The event that perhaps best illustrates the need for a ceremony such as this occurred in 1915 with the release of “Birth of a Nation.” This pernicious film openly promoted hateful, racist Ku Klux Klan activity, depicting these hooded killers as heroes and presenting such vile depictions of African Americans that it sparked nationwide protests led by the NAACP. In the years to follow, Klan membership skyrocketed into the millions, making the racist organization a major political influence in Washington throughout the 1920s and ’30s. In turn, however, as more and more African Americans rose through the ranks in show business, so too did membership climb in the NAACP.
The organization was formed in 1909 by a group of liberal white men and women appalled by the barbaric violence committed against innocent blacks in Springfield, Ill., home of Abraham Lincoln. Among the brave souls in the black community who risked being lynched or burned alive for getting involved were pioneering journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary Church Terrell, one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree, and W. E. B. Du Bois.
Du Bois helped found and edited a magazine called The Crisis, focusing on civil rights, history, politics and culture. The magazine, which has been in continuous print since 1910, is today the oldest black publication in the world. Du Bois, who attended the University of Berlin before finishing his graduate studies at Harvard, then becoming the first African-American to earn a doctorate from there, assumed a professorship at Atlanta University.
Through perseverance, protests, political pressure, legislation and legal action, NAACP leaders began forcing institutional change, leading the entertainment industry to become more inclusive and positive in its portrayals of people of color.
In 1942, NAACP Executive Director Walter White formed a committee to monitor the images of African Americans in film. For decades, the presence of African Americans in movies, music and literature was increasing. And when Dorothy Dandridge was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of “Carmen Jones” in 1954, it seemed the time was ripe for an awards program recognizing African American achievement.
Actress, writer and civil and equal rights activist Maggie Mae Hathaway co-founded the Image Awards in the late 1960s. But Willis Edwards, former head of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch of the NAACP, deserves a shout out for helping to launch the first televised event in 1982.
At this year’s ceremony, Singer Kendrick Lamar, who won Outstanding Album for “DAMN,” smiled as he commented on how happy he was to be there. “Last year I was nominated for New Artist of the Year, so we’re moving on up,” said Lamar.
Wearing an understated black dress for the occasion, veteran actress Lynn Whitfield, a member of the “Greenleaf” cast, eagerly unfolded her spiritual thoughts.
“God is at the center of everything that I do,” Whitfield reflected. “I really want to live life to the fullest now and to live it more courageously and faith-filled.”
Said NAACP President Derrick Johnson, who presented Danny Glover with this year’s President’s Award, the Image Awards is “a beacon of light on the diversity reflected in television, music, film and literature.”
A beacon powered by the truly heroic efforts of Wells-Barnett, Terrell, Du Bois, White, Dandridge, Hathaway, Edwards and all the unsung heroes of the NAACP who went before.
Visit naacpimageawards.net to learn more about the show and the winners.