Orleans Parish Coroner Dr. Dwight McKenna, a longtime physician, executive publisher of The New Orleans Tribune and founder of The McKenna Museums, was recently honored by the New Orleans Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) New Orleans with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
The national organization, which has noteworthy ties of longstanding to New Orleans, was founded in Atlanta in January 1957 as the Southern Leadership Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration. A month after the Atlanta kickoff, the group held another meeting in New Orleans, on Feb. 14. The organization shortened its name to Southern Christian Leadership Conference, established an executive board of directors and elected officers, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as president; Dr. Ralph David Abernathy as financial secretary-Treasurer; Rev. C. K. Steele of Tallahassee, Florida as vice president; Rev. T. J. Jemison of Baton Rouge, Louisiana as secretary; and New Orleans attorney, Israel M. Augustine as general counsel.
In accepting the honor, McKenna said, “To receive an award from the SCLC, the organization founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is about as high an honor as I can think of. And to be honored by my own people means so very much to me. If my life means anything, it is a testament to perseverance, to never giving up. There is always light at the end of the tunnel. And if you work hard enough and if you stand for what you believe in, blessings will come. I am very appreciative and proud”
Dr. McKenna, who has been a longtime activist, community leader and public servant, made history when he was elected Orleans Parish coroner, becoming the first African American to serve. His commitment to his hometown has been ongoing and far-reaching. In 1985, along with his wife Beverly, James Borders and Kermit Thomas, he founded the modern-day New Orleans Tribune to provide Black New Orleanians with news and information from a perspective not found in the city’s mainstream media. He also served on the Orleans Parish School Board, where he fought for the meaningful participation of Black-owned businesses in the economic opportunities associated with the public school system. Dr. McKenna took specific interest in the academic performance, social and cultural growth of young, Black males in New Orleans as well, commissioning a study on their plight. Dr. McKenna is a firm believer in the importance of institutions of higher learning dedicated to Black Americans. He is a generous supporter of his alma mater St. Augustine High School, and the McKennas have endowed a scholarship for Black male medical students at MeHarry Medical College, where Dr. McKenna earned his medical degree.
He is also co-founder of McKenna Museums, which include the George and Leah Museum of African-American Art and Le Musee de f.p.c., a house museum dedicated to sharing the history and contribution of free people of African descent to the city, state and nation.
Dr. McKenna was one of six New Orleanians to receive the award during the organization’s Memorial Observance Program on April 4, which marked the 51st anniversary of the day the civil rights leader was in Memphis, Tenn., where he had traveled to support Black sanitation workers striking for equal wages and safer working conditions. Other honorees included Rev. Dr. Ernest Marcelle Sr., Florida Carr Hargrove, Lloyd Richards, Millie Charles and Rev. Samson “Skip” Alexander (posthumously).