Lynn Whitfield, an Emmy Award winning actress known for her ability to play a wide range of demanding roles, brought her versatility to Columbus Friday as keynote speaker at the 13th Annual Women’s Empowerment Luncheon held at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center.
Speaking to a packed house of nearly 1,300 people, Whitfield was at times humorous, inspirational and seductive as she challenged women in the audience to confront their inner struggles and pursue their dreams. She recited eloquent words written by black icons such as the late actress Ruby Dee, the late poet Maya Angelou and the still-living poet/activist Nikki Giovanni.
The event, hosted by Davis Broadcasting and held in observance of Women’s History Month, focused on the theme “Remember our Struggle, Reclaim our Purpose, Redefine our Image.” It included a tribute to the late singer Whitney Houston with her song, “I Will Always Love You,” performed by Alexis Jones, a sophomore at Shaw High School. Also in the audience were about 22 eighth-graders from South Girard School in Phenix City, who had held fundraisers to purchase tickets for the event which cost about $35 a person. Geniece Granville, business manager for Davis Broadcasting, acknowledged the girls’ tenacity and gave them gifts for being there.
“These ladies remembered that the women who have come before them have taught them that you sometimes have to work hard to get what you want, you can’t wait for someone else to give it to you, “ she said. “They also reclaimed their purpose this year. They decided that, ‘My purpose is not just to buy the brand new shoes that are out, or to buy the brand new video game. I have a greater purpose than that.’ And they used those funds to come to a luncheon.”
Stephanie J. Hayes, founder of Mentoring Youth Service, was also recognized. She received a Woman of Excellence Award for her work in the community.
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson made remarks and presented Whitfield with a key to the city. Addressing the predominantly black female audience, the actress said she felt right at home.
“I’m just so happy to be in a room like this with you, because I know in this room everybody knows that black lives matter,” she said. “We don’t have to have any discussion about whether or not we need access to health care as women. We don’t need to have any discussion about us having the right to decide what happens with our bodies, understanding that everything has consequences, but it should not be a decision of a government.
“I know right now that I’m in a room of people who understand that we deserve equal pay for equal work,” she continued. “I’m comfortable today that I can step out and speak boldly because I know that I am in a room with people who know of everybody who worked so hard for the right to vote so that we have the right to choose and vote for the legislators that are going to make legislation that control our lives. Don’t we all know that?”
Whitfield said this Women’s History Month is special to her because of the march in Selma, Ala., last weekend.
“What happened? I saw our first daughters, our first lady and our amazing president up there commemorating such an important event that was so historically significant,” she said. “It was so important to see because just his presence there had everything to do with the theme of this luncheon. It had everything to do with what our struggle was, everything to do with reclaiming our purpose and everything to do with defining an image.”
Whitfield said the march made her think of so many women who fought in the civil rights struggle such as Ida B. Wells, a late 19th century black newspaper editor; Sojourner Truth, a black abolitionist and women’s rights activist: Harriet Tubman, conductor of the Underground Railroad; Shirley Chisholm, the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, and others. Whitfield said it is important to remember that many of those pioneers had personal challenges that they had to overcome, just as women do today.
Whitfield has been in over 90 productions throughout her career, according to her bio. In 1991, she vaulted to international fame in “The Josephine Baker Story,” the acclaimed HBO biopic portraying the legendary Paris-based entertainer and civil rights activist. The performance earned Whitfield an Emmy Award as “Outstanding Lead Actress in a Special or Miniseries.”
Whitfield, a native of Baton Rouge, La., has also starred opposite Bill Cosby in “The Cosby Mysteries” (NBC, 1994). On the big screen, she also played Brandi in Martin Lawrence’s urban revenge saga, “A Thin Line Between Love and Hate” (1996). She received critical acclaim for her role as the beleaguered wife of Samuel L. Jackson in “Eve’s Bayou” (1997), the story of a prominent black Louisiana family filmed near New Orleans. She returned to a similar dramatic milieu in the ABC miniseries, “The Wedding” (1998).
After her speech, people lined up for autographs. Deonta Blount, 34, a Columbus native now living in Atlanta, said she is an inspiring actress and considers her a role model.
“It had a great impact on me because she talked a lot about our ancestors, which is important,” she said. “It was very powerful."
Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.