Weeks after fallout from the
"The NAACP is bigger than any one man or one incident," Sharpton told a cheering crowd of hundreds, scolding anyone who would let the recent incident overshadow the organization's long history of activism.
Without the NAACP activists who marched and went to jail, the civil rights leader declared, the crowd wouldn't even be able to eat dinner at the Biltmore.
"You do not judge friends when everything is going your way," Sharpton said, alluding to the recent controversy. "You judge friends when things are in question and they show up."
The gala comes at a difficult time for the chapter. Its former president, Leon Jenkins, resigned earlier this month as the group faced criticism for its ties to embattled Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Sterling, who had been given an award five years ago, was slated to get another award at the anniversary gala before taped remarks came to light in which he asked a female friend not to publicly associate with African Americans.
Jenkins also faced scrutiny over his past as a judge in Michigan, where he was indicted on federal bribery, conspiracy and other charges, according to state bar records. Two weeks ago, he announced he was resigning to separate the NAACP "from the negative exposure I have caused."
Garcetti and several other speakers at the Thursday night event alluded to Jenkins' resignation in their remarks, pledging to help the organization press forward with its mission under its new president, retired Los Angeles teacher Minnie Hadley-Hempstead.
The mayor spoke of a long list of challenges, from the recent firebombing of apartments of several black families in northeast Los Angeles -- believed to have been targeted because they were black, Garcetti said -- to the disproportionate incarceration of youth of color.
"The cause ... is never defined by one leader, by a single chapter, by even a single organization. It is defined by all of us," the mayor said.
The cause is not a single leader, Garcetti added, "any more than a city is represented by the hateful words of one businessman."
The organization gave its lifetime achievement award to retired defense attorney Charles C. Patton. Garcetti and Sharpton both received the NAACP chapter's inaugural "Person of the Year" awards.
The group also presented honors to Wal-Mart community affairs director Javier Angulo and retired educator Hester Watkins, among others.
"Sterling may be rich," Sharpton said in a line that drew roaring applause, "but he's not nearly as rich as the history of this organization."