Two Rivers Gala | Tougaloo Honors 2024 | Honoree Profiles

2024 Two Rivers Gala


Awards and Recognitions

Honoring Tougaloo College Alumni


Light of Justice Award

Light of Justice Award

Honoring individuals who demonstrate unwavering dedication, visionary leadership, and profound commitment to advancing justice and equity through impactful policy advocacy, igniting positive societal change.


Derrick Johnson – Award Light of Justice Award


Derrick Johnson stands at the forefront of the fight for civil rights and social justice as President and CEO of the NAACP, a position he has held since October 2017. With a deep-rooted commitment to equality and empowerment, Mr. Johnson has dedicated his career to defending the rights and improving the lives of marginalized communities across America.

A stalwart leader within the NAACP, Mr. Johnson's tenure has been marked by a series of impactful initiatives to address systemic inequalities and advocate for racial justice. From spearheading the "Log Out" Facebook Campaign to pressuring Facebook over Russian hackers' targeting of African Americans to leading the historic Jamestown to Jamestown Partnership commemorating 400 years since enslaved Africans arrived in America, Mr. Johnson's leadership has been instrumental in shaping the organization's vision and impact.

Under his leadership, the NAACP has launched transformative campaigns like "We are Done Dying," exposing inequities within the American healthcare system and advocating for policy changes to address racial disparities. His advocacy efforts led to President Biden's establishment of an interagency effort to eliminate systemic racial barriers and ensure equity in federal policies. His leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the urgent need for a national response informed by racial disparities in healthcare.

Mr. Johnson's commitment to justice extends beyond policy advocacy. He  has been a vocal critic of racial injustices, condemning instances of Blackface and church burnings.

Born in Detroit and educated at Tougaloo College and South Texas College of Law, Mr. Johnson's expertise and dedication have earned him recognition as a leading voice in civil rights activism. As a veteran activist in Mississippi, he led critical campaigns for voting rights and equitable education, and as President of the NAACP Mississippi State Conference, he championed bond referendums for school improvements and community development.

With a distinguished career spanning advocacy, legal expertise, and grassroots organizing, Mr. Johnson continuously advocates for justice and equality. His unwavering commitment to empowering marginalized communities and challenging systemic oppression makes him a driving force in America's ongoing struggle for civil rights.


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Vanguard Award

Honoring extraordinary individuals whose groundbreaking achievements have left an indelible mark on history, elevating them to a singular realm of distinction.


Rear Admiral Zeita Merchant


Rear Admiral Zeita Merchant is a trailblazer, a leader, and history-maker in the U.S. Coast Guard. With an illustrious career spanning nearly 27 years, Captain Merchant has shattered barriers and risen through the ranks to become the highest-ranking African American woman in the Coast Guard's 233-year history.

As the commander of the Port of New York at USCG Sector One, Captain Merchant oversees one of the nation's busiest port complexes, ensuring the safety of travelers and billions of dollars in cargo daily. Her leadership of over 1,000 personnel across 12 commands reflects her unwavering commitment to homeland defense and maritime safety.

Throughout her career, Captain Merchant has been a pioneer, often being the first minority or woman to hold leadership positions within the Coast Guard. Her dedication to excellence has earned her numerous commendations, including Meritorious Service Medals and Coast Guard Commendation Medals.

Beyond her remarkable achievements, Captain Merchant is passionate about inspiring the next generation of leaders, particularly young African American women. Her promotion to rear admiral serves as a beacon of hope and representation for those who aspire to serve their country.

A graduate of Tougaloo College and a recipient of multiple advanced degrees, including a master's degree from George Washington University and a doctorate from the National Graduate School, Captain Merchant embodies the Coast Guard's commitment to education and professional development.

As she prepares for her new role in Washington, D.C., Captain Merchant remains dedicated to making a difference at the highest levels of the Coast Guard. Her enthusiasm for service and her unwavering dedication to excellence continue to inspire all future generations.

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Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi – Vanguard Award – Pioneering the Future, Empowering Minds

Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi is more than an astrophysicist; he's a beacon of inspiration, a champion of education, and a testament to the power of resilience. With a compelling personal journey chronicled in his acclaimed memoir, "A Quantum Life: My Unlikely Journey from the Streets to the Stars," Dr. Oluseyi has captivated audiences worldwide with his story of overcoming adversity and reaching for the cosmos.

Formerly stationed at NASA Headquarters as the Astrophysicist and Space Science Education Lead for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Dr. Oluseyi has played a pivotal role in shaping the future of space exploration and STEM education. His impact extends beyond academia, as he co-hosts numerous shows on Science Channel and Discovery International, including "Outrageous Acts of Science," "How the Universe Works," and "Space's Deepest Secrets."

In the face of adversity, Dr. Oluseyi's unyielding passion for knowledge propelled him towards a remarkable journey in science, a journey that found its roots at Tougaloo College. From humble beginnings, he soared to acquire two degrees from Stanford University. Dr. Oluseyi's pioneering research on "hacking stars" is a testament to his brilliance, yielding patents and publications that redefine the frontiers of astrophysics and cosmology.

As an advocate for diversity and inclusion in STEM fields, Dr. Oluseyi is president of the National Society of Black Physicists, inspiring future generations to pursue their passions regardless of background or circumstance. His accolades, including being an MIT Faculty Fellow and NASA Earth/Sun Science New Investigator Fellow, underscore his contributions to scientific innovation and education.

Dr. Oluseyi's journey reminds us that we can defy expectations and reach for the stars with perseverance and determination. Join us in welcoming Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi, a visionary scientist and compelling storyteller, to the Two Rivers Gala as we celebrate his extraordinary achievements and the limitless potential of the human spirit.

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