Joe’s Pub, New York, NY

January 30, 2017

Good evening. I’m Darren Walker, and I have the great privilege of serving as president of the Ford Foundation and welcoming you on behalf of my colleagues on this special, extraordinary occasion.

Tonight is a celebration of True South, this dazzling, brilliant book by the amazing Jon Else. It is also a celebration of Blackside, Inc. and the thirtieth anniversary of a seminal documentary series called Eyes on the Prize created by the legendary Henry Hampton.

Now, for all of us who might have been feeling a little dejected, a little depressed, a little anxious, there is hope because, on nights like tonight, we are reminded of why America is great. We are reminded of those among us who had the courage to take a risk and put their lives on the line for justice.

What we learned through Eyes on the Prize was the power of hearing personal stories from the frontlines of the civil rights movement, and the power of storytelling to change the hearts and minds of people.

At the Ford Foundation, we learned a lot through our work with Henry and the Blackside team in supporting this seminal documentary. I want to share with you Henry’s powerful words from his original proposal to the Ford Foundation.

He wrote, “The story of the civil‑rights movement is about masses of people from all walks of life who over a protracted period of time not yet ended devoted themselves to securing the equal application of the laws without regard to race and to vindicating the fundamental humanity and rights of black people in America.”

There was no punctuation in that paragraph. And, for those of you who have worked at the Ford Foundation, you know that that’s really problematic. But the fact that there was no punctuation did not get in the way. In fact, it made it even more powerful and authentic. And, at the end of the day, it was the authenticity of Henry Hampton, Jon Else, and all of the team who came together with him to really produce this great American treasure.

I am reminded today of why what you all started with this documentary so changed the face of American culture through this thing called storytelling, which today is a rather understood, axiomatic idea. But it was actually a very new idea when it was brought to the Ford Foundation by Henry and the Blackside group.

We need storytelling today. We need artists today. Because storytellers and documentarians hold the mirror up. And, in this country, when power does not want to hear the truth, storytellers and artists hold the powerful to account. Storytellers and artists hold that mirror up, and they demand that America address the gap between American mythology and American reality.

This is what we owe to all of those who have come before us—and to so many of you in this audience—who built the roads and who carried the water to make it possible for us, even in moments like these difficult and dispiriting moments, to be emboldened, to be hopeful and to be resilient. At a time when storytelling has taken on a different lens—when the stories that are being told are fraudulent and false and seek to divide us rather than affirm our humanity—we need storytellers, my brothers and sisters, in this country today.

At the Ford Foundation, we are in the business of hope, and the American narrative has at its core the idea of hope. And there are many threats, we are told, that we in this country face. But I believe the greatest threat is not terrorism or a pandemic, but hopelessness, because hopelessness can drive a people to lose their humanity, to lose their capacity to be generous, to be sympathetic and to be understanding of difference.

We’ve got work to do at the Ford Foundation, and we all in this room have work to do, to ensure that we not lose our capacity for generosity, our capacity to continue to be a place on this planet that is welcoming to all people, where our traditions, our ideals of who we are as America and Americans, is expansive and inclusive. So we’re going to be depending on all of you, and we’re going to do our part to contribute to ensuring that America is great and inclusive and expansive and participatory and has room in its heart for all of us.

I’m so grateful to be here tonight, so thankful for the opportunity to serve the Ford Foundation and to have a chance to celebrate you, Jon, and all that you have done, all that you are contributing, and all that you will continue in the future to do.

Please join me in welcoming the amazing, the incomparable, the indefatigable, the inimitable Jon Else.