Community leaders and Hollywood notables piled into the Riverside Church in Harlem on Monday to experience a new kind of Martin Luther King Day tribute. Put together by the Campaign For Black Achievement and Blackout for Human Rights, MLKNow served as an opportunity to engage in dialogue, celebrate the legacy of civil rights, and as a tribute to Dr. King’s vision and commitment. Director Ryan Coogler (Creed) served as the emcee of the day in a most humble and unpretentious fashion, keeping things moving in the program with humor, humility, and sincerity. Featuring musical performances from Bilal, Saul Williams, and India.Arie, celebrity speakers as well as panelists like Rahiel Tesfamariam, Linda Sarsour, Dante Barry, Gina Belafonte, and Leon Ford Jr., MLKNow was partly organized by Coogler, who explained why he felt compelled to deliver commentary in his art and why he wanted to make an event such as this a reality.
“We talked about using our collective power to find solutions and here we are today for our first MLKNow event,” Coogler stated. “My first feature [Fruitvale Station] was about a young man whose life was taken and I couldn’t understand how it could happen where I was from [Oakland, California], supposedly the most liberal place in America. In my foolish young mind, I though this movie could make a difference. In the years following, I saw even more videotapes like Oscar [Grant]’s murder. And I felt like this movie did nothing and I got really depressed. Then I realized that stories like Oscar’s have always been going on for several years. We just now have the technology to see what happened.
“As I did research, I started to look and find thinkers from different times and the language that they used,” Coogler added, explaining why he wished to bring MLKNow to fruition. He also added that the assassinations of black leaders are an undercurrent throughout black history. “What’s incredibly ironic about this is, out of the five men that we picked, four of them were murdered by gun violence,” he shared.
Throughout the day, actors would interpret famous speeches from icons of black struggle: Michael B. Jordan delivered an impassioned recital of Fred Hampton’s “Power Anywhere There’s People,” and Jordan’s Creed co-star Tessa Thompson shared Angela Davis’s “Victory Speech.” Broadway veterans Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anika Noni Rose also gave their respective takes on the historical words of Martin Luther King Jr., and Sojourner Truth—with Andre Holland’s take on Malcolm X being received particularly well by the attendees, as was Shirley Chisolm’s 1972 presidential campaign announcement as read by actress Condola Rashad.
Chris Rock cracked about having to “follow the heartthrob” Jordan before diving into James Baldwin’s famous 1963 letter to his teenage nephew, “My Dungeon Shook.”
“I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it,” he read.
Adepero Oduye (Pariah, 12 Years A Slave) became physically overwhelmed while reciting Ida B. Wells’s famous “This Awful Slaughter” speech, which she delivered at the NAACP’s first national conference in 1909 in protest of lynchings. As she excused herself from the stage, famed stage director Kenny Leon stepped in to finish the speech in fiery style.
“In a multitude of counsel there is wisdom. Upon the grave question presented by the slaughter of innocent men, women and children there should be an honest, courageous conference of patriotic, law-abiding citizens anxious to punish crime promptly, impartially and by due process of law, also to make life, liberty and property secure against mob rule.” – Ida B. Wells
Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer’s heart-wrenching delivery of King’s famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech—the final one he would deliver—was one of the most emotional moments in a day that had no shortage of them. Rose also performed a poignant rendition of J. Cole’s 2014 Mike Brown tribute “Be Free,” before Cole himself emerged to join Coogler in a quick artists’ discussion.
Despite some philosophical differences regarding race and community ills, the two men revealed how much they have leaned on each other’s art over the past few years and how being young and black means that they have to be OK with expressing pain.
“When I heard about your film and saw it, I just wanna let you know, bro—every time I see it, I break down crying. I can’t control it,” Cole told Coogler, who then shared how painful his own rise to fame has been with a sad anecdote about filling out the guest list for the Creed premiere.
“We started writing down names, but all of the cats I grew up with were gone,” Coogler said, his voice slightly cracking. “We put a shield up to talk about it.”
“We work in different mediums, but I just gotta say ‘thank you,’” Coogler told Cole. “When you put out and express what you’re going through, you make me feel less like of an alien.”
The Cole-Coogler exchange included Coogler’s awkwardly inadvertent announcement that Cole has gotten married. “I told you I never interviewed anybody before,” Coogler offered apologetically after Cole’s surprised laughter at being asked about his nuptials. But the unexpected gaffe only added to the casually conversational tone between the two.
Riverside Church has a direct link to the legacy of Dr. King: it was at Riverside that the slain civil rights icon gave his “Beyond Vietnam” speech in 1967. King’s speech was his first public declaration of anti-war sentiment and was criticized by some as a distraction; but he stated explicitly why he felt that he couldn’t be silent on how the war was affecting America, in general, but especially how it was hypocritical of him to preach non-violence without acknowledging the violence America has used both at home and abroad to further its own ends.
“As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems,” King stated in 1967. “I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, ‘What about Vietnam?’ They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”
Every January, Americans revel in sentimental and often superficial celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. The status quo that despised what King represented as an actual living, breathing revolutionary has taken great pains to turn King into a historical teddy bear; and contemporary bigots routinely cite King in an attempt to shine modern movements like “Black Lives Matter.” But King was never the saccharine peacenik that so much of America has turned him into. And this country would do better to fully understand the scope of his legacy—his commitment to economic growth, his thoughts on pan-Africanism and white moderates, his clashes with the American political establishment, and his forbears in the black church. If there was one clear, overriding theme of MLKNow, it was that King’s legacy is one of revolutionary activism and sacrifice. We can’t allow that legacy to be watered down for mass consumption.
In addition to reciting Patrice Lumumba’s 1960 speech on Congo independence, Harry Belafonte shared his firsthand memories of his time with Dr. King.
“In all that we achieved with Dr. King and all that we have fought for in terms of voting rights, equal rights, and education, we still sit in a place that has denied us,” Belafonte observed. “In the last days when I spoke to Dr. King before his assassination—before his murder—we met in my home, as was a common practice, to discuss strategy. The next big campaign was to be The Poor Peoples’ Campaign. Dr. King came to us to give us our last instructions. He was on his way to Memphis.”
Recalling that King had spoken to young people in Newark who were ready to use force to fulfill their objectives, Belafonte shared King’s apprehensions. “I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house,” is the oft-repeated phrase that Belafonte again shared. When he asked King what the right approach was for addressing such a situation, Belafonte smiled as he remembered the man’s response: “We’ve got to become firemen.”