Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)’s 34th annual Brooklyn Tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of ongoing injustice and inequality in a stark, unsparing light.
MLK was a Baptist minister and Civil Rights Activist who led the civil rights movement and played a pivotal role in ending racial segregation in the 1960s before being assassinated on April 4, 1968. The event kicked off at 10:30 with music from the Brooklyn Interdenominational Choir, including “the National Anthem” and “Lift Every Voice.” BAM President Katy Clark gave opening remarks and then introduced the master of ceremonies, New York City Council Member for the 36th district, Robert Cornegy. R&B artist Son Little performed a tribute.
“You only need a heart full of love and grace” to serve, Cornegy said, reminding that anyone, even those from working-class backgrounds, can serve public office.
Senator Charles Schumer honored the day’s keynote speaker, New York Times investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.
“What she shows you is, slavery isn’t something in history — African Americans live with slavery every single day, ” Schumer said of Hannah-Jones, who completed The 1619 Project, her work examining the legacy of slavery in the U.S, last year.
Schumer then called for a moment of silent prayer for Congressman John Lewis, who fought alongside MLK and is currently fighting pancreatic cancer.
Speaker Corey Johnson spoke about the many systemic inequalities the city has yet to solve, from food insecurity to the homelessness epidemic facing one in 10 of New York City public students at some point in their lives. There is, Johnson said, a long road ahead of us in achieving justice and equality – two issues Dr. King cared deeply about.
Borough President Adams preached about rejecting complacency in the face of racial injustice.
Adams’ voice rose to a fiery shout as he threw out jarring statistics about the lingering systemic inequalities plaguing the black community. Members of the audience waved their hands as if at a preacher’s sermon, and people quietly urged him to “speak on it!”
As the speakers delivered their words, an enormous black-and-white photo of MLK watched over the stage, his slight upward gaze serving as both period and ellipsis.
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams reminded the crowd that MLK was widely misrepresented as someone who condemned protest – a notion that is “often used to attack modern-day acts of protest and dissent.”
“Don’t let them make you pick [between] Malcolm X and Doctor King,” Williams said, to cheers and applause. “They were both revolutionary.”
District Attorney Eric Gonzalez spoke about his ongoing efforts to create a fairer justice system. For example, many of those incarcerated at Rikers Island are only there because they are too poor to post cash bail, and are disproportionately people of color. Gonzalez and his office are currently working to reduce the reliance on cash bail in Brooklyn’s justice system.
The speakers roundly condemned the Trump administration, crying out for action on the part of regular Americans — not just politicians — to address the hatred and bigotry that the administration has given a voice to. Williams told the crowd that they needed to speak up against the bigotry of the administration now, while we still have a chance, while Gillibrand reminded the audience to vote Trump out of office next November. Many speakers also spoke to the scourge of antisemitism affecting the country, and particularly Brooklyn.
Hannah – Jones, who received a MacArthur Genius Award in 2017, reminded the audience that our democracy is founded on black peoples’ fight for civil rights, which the 1619 project was based on.
“Black people are the solution,” to the nation’s crisis of racism and inequality, Hannah- Jones said. Every other rights’ struggle, she said, from the LGBTQ rights movement to the disability rights movement, “owes its inheritance to the black resistance struggle.” When LGBTQ rights groups, for example, fight to have their rights recognized by law, she said, they cite the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The clause, passed after the abolition of slavery, guarantees the same rights and protections to all people equally under the law.
Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke last, introduced by his wife, First Lady Chirlane McCray. In his speech, the Mayor asserted that “it is the people who must save the lives of our fellow Americans and finally open the doors to a just society, where all those resources are spent on fairness, on decency, on our children, on our families, on our neighborhoods.”
The Mayor ended with a call to action: “Don’t ever be silent. Stand up.”