This past Monday, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I sat in the pew at the Riverside Church in Harlem, gazing at stained-glass windows and epic columns bathed in a magenta light. Archival photos of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth played on the screen while Nina Simone's classic " Sinnerman" was heard overhead. I thought of Simone, her layered vibrato, and her question: "How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?" She did this, even when her defiant calls for black liberation threatened her career and life. Are we willing to do the same?
Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech in this church, when the country was on the brink of war. That speech, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence," was in stark opposition to that war, and is largely overlooked in mainstream portrayals of Dr. King, which tend to focus on his "I Have a Dream" speech more than anything else. His was an unpopular stance to take, but in the spirit of Simone and other black leaders and artists of that time, change could not wait.
I was there to attend #MLKNOW, a day of readings, music, and conversation co-organized by Creed director Ryan Coogler's Blackout for Human Rights organization and the Campaign for Black Male Achievement. Although the lineup of performers featured many prominent artists and luminaries of color, such as Chris Rock, India Arie, Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda, and rapper J. Cole, the event wasn't the time to be starstruck. As Shawn Dove, the CEO of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, who helped organize the event, reminded attendees in his keynote: "We're not here to be entertained. These artists are here to ignite us." Though some of the most popular black entertainers would be embodying the words and spirits of our black leaders, the purpose, according to Coogler, was to "apply these leaders' words, and their voices, to today," and to ruminate on the fact that four of the five male leaders featured in the program died due to gun violence.
I spotted Trayvon Martin's brother, Jahvaris Fulton, and immediately felt as if I knew him, though I quickly realized that my connection to him through past news headlines wasn't, in fact, tangible, and I wondered how this day would affect him. By the time the speeches began, a crowd of several hundred mostly brown faces—African-American families, women in hijab, mothers with their children—had gathered in the pews; those who couldn't find seats stood along the sides of the church and in the back.
These moments of doubt and inner conflict are rarely discussed in King's mainstream legacy—the instances in which he wavered, acknowledging that the injustices faced by black people were, at times, too much to bear.
Tony award-nominated actress Condola Rashad channeled Shirley Chisholm, in her "Presidential Campaign Announcement," where she declared that the majority of the government "harbor(s) narrow and petty prejudice" and that "Americans demand a new sensibility from our government." These words were spoken in 1972, but some might ask: What has changed, and why are we still asking this questions over 40 years later?? It was a question that would come up repeatedly through the program.
When it came for his turn to speak, Michael B. Jordan abandoned the actual document he read from, addressing the audience as Fred Hampton, getting at the tragic humor and pathos in the Black Panther leader who was killed in his sleep at age 21. As he delivered Hampton's words, the audience cheered, clapped, and even laughed. The immediate subject matter itself wasn't funny—rather it was the absurdity of continued injustice, time and time again. Comedian Chris Rock, having also memorized his speech, delivered a stirring rendition of James Baldwin's letter to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation, proclaiming: "You and I know that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom, one hundred years too early." I immediately thought of the many African-Americans, including my own ancestors, supposedly "freed" from slavery, only to enter the prison of sharecropping and Jim Crow laws that would cripple their lives for generations to come.
Meanwhile, a woman scrolled busily through her Twitter timeline next to me, constantly tweeting and retweeting—history in the midst of hashtag culture. During her performance of Ida B. Wells's painful anti-lynching speech, "This Awful Slaughter," actress Adepero Oduye became weak, and had to exit the stage. People in the crowd shouted words of support and encouragement: "Take your time," and "It's OK," as theater director Kenny Leon escorted her from the stage and continued the speech. Oduye's experience brought me back to stories I'd hear from my black, Christian friends about catching the "Holy Ghost" in church, as the "spirit" enters you. Though we weren't there for a traditional service, I couldn't help but think of the spirits of those people listed as victims of lynching—for "crimes" of associating with white women—revisiting us during this speech.
One of the highlights of the program was when Knick actor André Holland performed Malcolm X's "Police Brutality and Mainstream Media" with a fervor that recalled Malcolm X's own delivery in 1962 Los Angeles. Listening to his powerful, sobering words—"You can't be a Negro in America and not have a criminal record. Martin Luther King has been to jail… Why, you can't name a black man in this country who's sick and tired of the hell he's catching who hasn't been to jail"—it was as though we had been transported a church or a mosque in the 1960s. Yet passages about ongoing police brutality called to mind present-day issues such as stop-and-frisk laws and the killings of Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland who were viewed as the "perceived criminal threats" that Malcolm spoke of, simply because they happened to be black.
Famed musician and activist Harry Belafonte took the stage next, where he read Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba's "Proclamation of Independence." In his introduction, Belafonte recalled one of his last meetings with King, who'd just returned from a trip to Newark, where he had heard the grievances of young black people ready to fight back against the racism they had experienced. King had sympathized with their position, admitting, "I am afraid we are integrating into a burning house." These moments of doubt and inner conflict are rarely discussed in King's mainstream legacy—the instances in which he wavered, acknowledging that the injustices faced by black people were, at times, too much to bear.
"Almost all of the people who made up the civil rights movement were teenagers," Belafonte said. "Dr. King was 24, and I was 26. We were the elders." As someone who teaches youth, this struck a chord with me. I looked around to see so many young faces in the crowd. I hoped Belafonte's message of resistance resonated with them as much as rapper J. Cole's mere presence did, but it was hard to tell, since many of them quickly exited after his conversation with Coogler.
The five-hour-long event concluded with a social-justice panel peppered by fiery, timely statements by Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, and writer and publisher Rahiel Tesfamariam, who both called for identifying a common enemy in the fight against white supremacy.
"We can't be delivered from a demon we can't name," warned Tesfamariam. Sarsour proclaimed that her struggle as a Muslim and a Palestinian was bound in the struggle of black people in America. The urgency of their calls for communal solidarity against institutional racism was made more urgent by panelist Leon Ford, Jr., who was shot five times by police in Pittsburgh and left paralyzed, after purportedly running a stop sign and being mistakenly profiled as a gang member.
"When I wake up and see my son playing with my wheelchair, I can't forget the night I was shot," he said. When asked by moderator Trymaine Lee what keeps him going, Ford answered, "The fact that I don't want my son to be shot down in these streets."
Ford's sobering words brought the event and its focus, full-circle. Many of the leaders memorialized in performance and song—MLK, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, Patrice Lumumba—died for what people of color still continue to fight for today: equality and a right to live in this country.
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