An event honoring MLK’s legacy in a modern context
by Sebastian Guccione
To quote from historians Timothy McCarthy and John McMilian’s 2003 The Radical Reader:
Today, every state in the Union pays annual tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. Not a January passes that we are not reminded, in schools, on op-ed pages, and even in television advertisements, that King devoted the best years of his life to nonviolence and civil rights. At this very moment, Dr. King’s portrait hangs proudly in the Bush White House. But how much do students know about the popular resistance and government repression that King faced while he was still alive, or the thorny questions he raised about American materialism, militarism and classism? Who recalls that even as King was doing his good work, federal agents worked behind the scenes to smear him, tapping his phones, sending him threatening mail and trying to discredit him among journalists, donors, and supporters?
The emphasis of MLK Now, an annual event hosted by Blackout for Human Rights, is to build on King’s legacy by continuing to advocate for his life’s work and to take difficult stances that still place us in an ideological minority today. The event was held this past MLK Day at The Riverside Church in Harlem, where King delivered his “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech. It featured a wide range of personalities, including “1619 Project” creator Nikole Hannah-Jones, author Ta’Nehisi Coates, musicians J. Cole and Black Thought, activists Alicia Garza and Rosa Clemente, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Seattle Seahawk Marshawn Lynch.
The diversity of MLK Now’s roster was reflected through the wide range of mediums the event featured, from spoken word poetry and musical performance, to interviews and panel discussion.
Early in the event, a panel discussion was held featuring activists including Tiffany Loftin, Director of the NAACP Youth & College Division. Tiffany spoke about the danger of conscious educational reform strategies that aims to minimize student politicization. As former president of the United States Student Association, Tiffany described how “right-wing litigators canceled student ability to be able to pay for third party organizations,” which significantly hurt students’ abilities to organize on the state-wide level. She explained that the reason there is a considerable effort to remove student organizations, ethnic studies, and policy discussion on campus is because of how students are historically among the strongest agents for change.
Another highlight of the event was when Blackout For Human Rights founder Ryan Coogler interviewed rapper J. Cole. When Ryan asked him about his decision to raise awareness of social issues through his art, J. Cole cited “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander’s book about mass incarceration, as inspiration for his album “4 Your Eyez Only”: “It was mind blowing. Everything we saw and see was put into factual evidence… [reading the book] happened to coincide with a time in my life where I was tired of rapping about myself.” Following the release of the album, J. Cole opened up his “4 Your Eyez Only” World Tour by being escorted on stage in an orange jumpsuit by police officers, to which he commented “I don’t look at it like it was some type of heroic thing… there are people that are really devoting their lives to this, it was just my little piece to the equation.”
In the last performance of the event, singer Naturi Naughton read Dr. King’s speech, “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?” Dr. King delivered the speech to students, and in it he asked, “[w]hat is in your life’s blueprint? This is the most important and crucial period of your lives. For what you do now and what you decide now at this age may well determine which way your life shall go.”