Milano, Moreno and fellow award recipients Eva Longoria and Constance Wu called for unity and diversity in representation.
In an evening filled with tears, laughter and numerous standing ovations, the ACLU of Southern California bestowed its Bill of Rights Awards to Eva Longoria, Kenya Barris and Constance Wu and its Eason Monroe Courageous Advocate Awards to #MeToo founder and activist Tarana Burke and actress-activist Alyssa Milano, while Rita Moreno added the Ramona Ripston Liberty, Justice and Equality Award to her EGOT, SAG Life Achievement Award and Kennedy Center Honor, among other accolades.
As the event took place on Veterans Day, ACLU SoCal executive director Hector Villagra also recognized veterans in the audience at the Beverly Wilshire who were immigrants and had been set to be deported after serving in the military, despite being told their service automatically made them citizens. The ACLU fought the deportations and won, helping the vets become U.S. citizens.
Laurence Fishburne presented Barris with the Bill of Rights Award, praising the writer-producer for his skill at starting important conversations through his TV shows.
“We need to see people as not just ideas but as actual people,” Barris said during his acceptance speech. “It’s so tragic to me that Mr. Trump, I refuse to call him ‘President Trump,’ sees people as things — he sees them as thoughts and concepts, and for future generations, we have to stop that. I’m very, very proud that Black-ish is a show that allows people to see that we’re much more alike than we are different and that our differences actually should be celebrated because that’s what makes us better as a country.”
America Ferrera presented her friend and fellow actress and activist Longoria with her Bill of Rights Award, praising her unflagging devotion to various causes.
Longoria credited the influence of one of her mentors, Latina activist Delores Huerta: “She told me, ‘Hermana, one day you’re gonna have a voice — you better have something to say.’ In the current political climate, we’re one of the groups facing the most discrimination. I’m ninth-generation American. I’m more American than Donald Trump. That’s when I decided to start the Eva Longoria Foundation with the idea that I wanted to narrow the opportunity gap and the economic gap that exists for Latinas. I decided to focus on women because if women ran the world, it would be a better place. Women are the majority of this country. We’re not a special-interest group.”
Wu admitted that when she was first told of the ACLU honor, she almost declined it when she realized she’d have to make a speech. “But I decided to speak because the systemic culture that has birthed my reluctance to speak is one I no longer care to fortify,” said the actress.
Pointing to her work on the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat and this year’s hit film Crazy Rich Asians, Wu observed it has taken 25 years for people to talk about Asian representation onscreen, and she credited the work done by the ACLU: “The ACLU fights the fights that say you don’t have to assimilate to belong here. America’s representation of Asians in TV and film might seem a little thin, but I fight for it because to a girl like I used to be, that little thing would’ve been really big. She could’ve seen TV shows where the inside of houses looked like her house, and she would’ve been proud of the language and accents in that house because that was the house that built her.”
After dinner, Jennifer Hudson took to the stage to sing “I’ll Fight,” the Diane Warren song written for the RBG documentary.
Melissa Goodman, director of advocacy for ACLU SoCal, presented a video message from Burke, creator of the #MeToo movement. In it, Burke said she was thankful to be in the company of the honorees and also asked for unity: “Please know that our work will continue as it always has, but we can’t do it alone.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti presented Milano with the Eason Monroe Courageous Advocate Award for her continued work on the #MeToo movement. The actress showed up at the event even though her family has been evacuated from their canyon home due to the Woolsey Fire.
Milano began her speech by thanking Garcetti for his “constant and steadfast leadership during these difficult times with these fires.”
About the fateful Sunday that she asked people to retweet #MeToo if they had experienced sexual harassment or violence and a tidal wave of replies resulted, Milano said through tears: “Those 53,000 lives came together in one movement grounded in two words: Me too. It has become so much more than a hashtag. They connected us to our pain but also to our power. Finally we have protection too in the form of each other.”
The actress credited her call-to-action “#MeToo” tweet to the movement’s founder and fellow honoree, Tarana Burke. Milano then called for education, legislation (“It’s time to pass the Equal Rights Amendment!”) and activation to end the status quo and ensure that future generations won’t have sexual harassment or assault as part of their human experience.
ACLU trustee Norman Lear, who presented Moreno’s Ramona Ripston Liberty, Justice and Equality Award, first paid tribute to Ripston, who served as the executive director of the ACLU of Southern California from 1972-2011. Ripston died recently, and Lear remembered her with affection: “Ramona was fearless, yet approachable. She was warm, and she was dedicated. My life, I’m proud to say, has been influenced by several remarkable women.”
During her acceptance speech, Moreno remembered finding solace in music when she first came to America and didn’t speak English. She said her favorite song at the time was the Pied Pipers’ “Dream,” and she then sang the song a cappella for the rapt crowd. Moreno also spoke of attending her first ACLU meeting when she was 20 years old and how it transformed her attitude and outlook: “These were people who stood up for people like me. It reminded me that I have value. I have rights. I left that meeting an advocate. I was determined to find my voice.”
The EGOT winner closed her speech with, “Next month I will turn 87 years old. And you, ACLU, are 95 and thank God you’re still here. Today, God knows your voice is needed more than ever for the immigrant, the marginalized, the victim, the refugee. You can count on me as an evangelist for the cause. I am Rita Moreno, and I have not shut up, and I will not shut up.”