Earlier this week, the nation remembered the life, legacy and impact of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a countless number of ceremonies and events taking place across the country to honor his memory.
In New York City, the most memorable of events that took place was the #MLKNOW program, which celebrated Dr. King’s massive influence through the incorporation of speeches from iconic civil rights heroes, spoken word, song and interactive discussion. The event was a collaborative effort by the Blackout For Human Rights organization and the Campaign for Black Male Achievement and was hosted by talented filmmaker/Blackout For Human Rights founder Ryan Coogler at the historic Riverside Church in Harlem. Fans, media and special guests packed the church from front to back within an hour of the opening time, as photos of the guest performers provided an artistic yet meaningful backdrop for the stage set up. The program agenda included performances from, and discussion segments with, several notable celebrities including Harry Belafonte, India Arie, Chris Rock, Michael B. Jordan, Anika Noni Rose and J.Cole, to name a few.
Check out our #MLKNOW recap below, highlighting some of the most powerful quotes from the event.
“Some of the most compelling & talented voices in America”
– Rev. Amy Butler
The program opened with brief remarks from Ryan Coolger, who was greeted with heavy applause as he took to the stage to introduce the Revered Dr. Amy Butler, who pastors the Riverside Church and was grateful for the opportunity to open its’ doors to such a broad audience of both attendees and live stream viewers for the purpose of honoring Dr. King’s legacy. She graciously thanked everyone in attendance, reminding the crowd of Dr. King’s delivery of his “Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence” sermon at Riverside Church in April of 1967. She closed out her commentary with a word of prayer after describing the program’s performers as “some of the most compelling and talented voices in America.”
“Black male achievement begins and ends in the home.”
– Shawn Dove
Reverend Butler’s remarks were followed by a quick address from Campaign for Black Male Achievement CEO Shawn Dove, who energized the crowd with a reminder that while the event would feature a star-studded line up of performers, the real message of the event was not rooted in entertaining the masses, but rather “to ignite us, elevate us and push us out of our comfort zones.” He also expressed gratitude for his 4 children being able to witness the program, which he described as a “historic moment.”
“We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as spoken by Lin Manuel Miranda
The first performer to take to the stage was actor/singer Lin Manuel Miranda. Miranda recited Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” sermon speech mentioned earlier by Revered Butler. Dr. King’s truthful words condemned the practice of war as a means of restoring peace and Miranda’s delivery earned much praise from the crowd as he exited the stage to make way for the next performer.
“Leadership does not mean putting the ear to the ground, to follow public opinion, but to have the vision of what is necessary and the courage to make it possible.”
– Shirley Chishlom as spoken by Condola Rashad
Actress Condola Rashad was next on the bill, channeling former politician Shirley Chishlom with a flawless delivery of Shirley’s 1972 Presidential candidate speech. At just 29-years-of age, Rashad’s delivery of the speech was as powerful for her generation as Shirley’s delivery in the 70s.
” I had to break my whole life down and really live on my knees to learn that I’m worthy and I’m significant and I matter…we all are..because we exist.”
– India Arie
Soul singer India Arie provided the first musical break in the program, taking to the stage to perform her single “I Am Light,” an empowering, melodic tune which encourages those struggling to realize the true value of their worth. She spoke briefly about her own adverse experiences in the music industry and described Shirley Chishlom as one of her “heroes.” before introducing Quincy Jones’ talented new artist Lee England Jr., who joined her for the performance.
We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity.”
-Fred Hampton as spoken by Michael B. Jordan
Multi-talented musician Bilal silenced the crowd next as they listened intently to his soulful performance, but the energy level returned as Michael B. Jordan took to the stage to deliver Fred Hampton’s “Power Anywhere Where There’s People” speech. Jordan brought a genuine quality to his delivery, with his quick speech pattern and conversational tone, receiving a standing ovation from the crowd as he concluded.
“Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear.”
-James Baldwin as spoken by Chris Rock
Next on the agenda, comedian and actor Chris Rock took to the stage to joke about performing after “heartthrob” Michael B. Jordan before giving a moving delivery of James Baldwin’s powerful “My Dungeon Shook” speech. The context of the speech reminds young Black men of their capabilities in spite of how they have been programmed to view themselves by white society and Rock’s delivery sans any notes was truly a highlight of the event.
Many have expressed outrage, but outrage is not enough. Governments and prison bureaucracies must be subjected to fears and unqualified criticism for their harsh and murderous repression.”
-Angela Davis as spoken by Tessa Thompson
Chris Rock’s eye-opening speech was followed by a surprise musical performance from “Empire” star Jussie Smollet, who did a rendition of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit.” Actress Adepero Oduye took to the podium next but was only able to make it through a partial portion of Ida B. Wells’ heartbreaking “This Awful Slaughter” speech before being overwhelmed with emotion and ultimately exiting the stage. Talented entertainer Tessa Thompson ignited the audience with her subtle but strong delivery of Angela Davis’ “Victory Speech” next. The speech was a timely choice given the disturbing increase of police brutality against African-Americans over the last few years.
“Hands up, I cant breathe. Look how they choked than man. A Black life is worth, more than a hashtag and more than a picket sign, we living in wicked times.”
Socially conscious hip-hop lyricist and educator Karega Bailey hit the stage next to deliver the first-ever performance of his latest single “No Indictment”, which boasts a message of changing the narrative surrounding police brutality against African-Americans by speaking truth at every turn.
“I am a woman’s rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man.”
– SoJourner Truth as spoken by Anika Noni Rose
Anika Noni Rose was next on the program with a classy and impactful performance of SoJourner Truth’s infamous “Aint I A Woman” speech. Her graceful yet unapologetic delivery reminded all those listening about the power of African-American women on every level.
“The police are able to use the press to make the white public think that 90 to 99 percent of the negroes are criminals. And once the white public is convinced of that, that automatically paves the way for the police to move into the negro communities, exercising Gestapo tactics.”
-Malcolm X as spoken by Andre Holland
Actor Andre Holland’s delivery of Malcolm X’s “Police Brutality and the Media” was quite impressive and memorable program, with Holland channeling Malcolm X in amazingly “true-to-form” fashion. In addition to his uncanny delivery, the speech’s topic also hit close to home for all in attendance as it addressed the consistently negative portrayal of Black people by police and the mainstream news media.
“We who are continuing to be the victims of this oppression will never, ever give in to oppression. We will not let that which transpires now continue to exist as long as we draw breath and as long as we stand in the pursuit of justice. If we can fix American, we will indeed have fixed most of the ills in the world.”
– Harry Belafonte
Easily the highlight of the program, Ryan Coogler then called on his brother Ken and Michael B. Jordan to escort legendary actor, entertainer and social activist Harry Belafonte to the stage for an introspective delivery of Patrice Lumumba’s “Proclamation of Independence” speech. Before he began, Mr. Belafonte expressed gratitude to Riverside Church for being a beacon of social change over the years and also reminisced on his last interaction with Dr. King before his untimely murder. In addition to his unforgettable delivery of the speech, a noteworthy moment came when Mr. Belafonte reminded the youth of today that many of our great African-American leaders were their age or younger when they made history by using their voices and actions to affect change for the betterment of the culture.
“There’s a level of self-reflection and honesty that we gotta have. Instead of marching on Washington, we gotta march on the hood and try to wake each other up. If we don’t find a way to truly love ourselves first and wipe out that lack of self-worth that’s been established, then economic power can never truly happen.”
Anika Noni Rose returned to the stage next, with an emotionally charged vocal performance of J.Cole’s “Be Free.” While introducing Anika, Ryan Coogler revealed that he had originally asked J.Cole to perform the song himself, but said Cole told him it was too heavy of a task considering the hurtful reality of the song’s lyrical content.
“As long as we live in neighborhoods where it’s easier to get access to a gun or drugs than it is to get a job, you’re gonna have violence and you’re gonna have these lifestyles.”
– Ryan Coogler
Cole and Coogler then took to the stage for a brief but undeniably huge moment in the program that saw the two young Black extraordinary talents find much common ground in their stories as individuals, as well as their pursuit of social change with regard to Black culture through their art. The refreshing conversation between Coogler and Cole also saw the two discuss progressive ideas on how the African-American community can begin to heal itself through self-reflection while also remaining aware the outside influences aimed at continuing the same cycle we are working to break.
“I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as spoken by Octavia Spencer
The final performances of the program came by way of Saul Williams and Samora Pinderhughes, as well as a powerful delivery of Dr. King’s “I’ve Been To The Mountain Top” speech by Octavia Spencer, who fought back tears as she recited Dr. King’s bittersweet words of positivity about the possibility of not living to see the very changes he dedicated his life to fighting for. The program closed out with an interactive panel discussion moderated by Trymaine Lee and featuring Gina Belafonte, Linda Sarsour, Dante Barry, Leon Ford, Jr. and Rachel Tesfamariam.
If you missed it, you can check out the full event livestream HERE.