The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) has been home to one of the largests tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for 30 years. An event of music, artwork, film and speeches from past guest speakers like Dr. Cornel West, Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover, many came in from the cold to fill every seat of the Howard Gilman Opera House in the borough’s downtown arts district to feel the warmth from the day’s spirit.
Yesterday, the people walked into the free program to the sounds of the Brooklyn Interdenominational Choir filling the elegant walls with uplifting gospel, including Kirk Franklin’s “Brighter Day” and a fiery reimagining of the old protest standby, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” Although the choir sounded wonderful, the most melodious sounds came from the audience, singing the Black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (on key, without looking at the lyric sheets inside their playbills).
From there, the event was placed into the able hands and words of MC Laurie Cumbo, the Brooklyn-based New York City councilwoman, who more than capably filled in for borough president Eric Adams, who was unable to attend. Ms. Cumbo introduced each speaker and performer with relentless praise and enthusiasm. She gave the entire event an air of celebration and revelry, pointing out a recent series of firsts in New York: the first Black Brooklyn borough president in Adams; the first Black New York City public advocate in Letitia James; and first Black New York district attorney in Ken Thompson, who spoke of the importance of not reducing Dr. King’s legacy to his “I Have a Dream” speech.
In this year’s tribute, the legacy of Dr. King served as a backdrop for addressing a few key struggles that Black folks have currently been wrestling with. While the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter movement is still on the lips of many, gun control, voting rights and pay wages dominated the talk of the day. Both New York senators spoke about said issues. Junior senator Kirsten Gillibrand urged equal wage for equal work, citing that “two out of three Black moms are the breadwinners of their families.”
Senior senator Chuck Schumer, an original sponsor of the MLK Day bill in the early 1980s, spoke candidly on one of Dr. King’s most important attributes, echoed by every one who stepped to the podium: his ability to tell the truth to the country, in spite of the consequences.
“He held up with his slender shoulders a giant mirror and forced America to look into that mirror… and they didn’t like what they saw,” said Schumer. The idea of forcing the oppressors to turn their violence onto Blacks while being captured on television in the 1960s informed the nature of the viral videos of police brutality that have galvanized people today.
Mayor Bill de Blasio—alongside his wife, First Lady Chirlane McCray—have been fighting Dr. King’s fight from City Hall, instituting mental health systems to combat gun violence, creating 40,000 units of affordable housing and reconciling a record number of labor contracts. But the mayor contends there is still much ground to make up.
De Blasio was particularly offended by the backward steps made to reduce voting rights for people of color by the US government, which Dr. King risked so much to bring about. “Dr. King, if he were here, of course would urge us to move forward. But he would also scold us,” the mayor said. “He would say, ‘Why was my legacy not followed through more wholly?’ ”
Singer/songwriter Kimberly Nichole, a popular contestant from NBC’s The Voice, livened things up with her righteous brand of blues/rock, stating we must remember that Blacks pioneered this music. Of the three songs she performed, it was her slow burning cover of “House of the Rising Sun” that resonated with the crowd.
The climax came when keynote speaker Dr. Michael Eric Dyson stepped to the microphone. Well aware of his surroundings, the preacher-turned-professor quoted “Juicy” from Brooklyn’s own late poet laureate, the Notorious B.I.G. A master orator, Dr. Dyson was his typical charismatic self, using wit, criticism, humor and encouragement to entice applause, foot stomping and crying out.
Dr. Dyson, who’s written two books on King, also spoke on how telling the truth was the slain civil rights leader’s greatest attribute, despite the fact he was down to three suits, broke, and losing the backing of longtime allies during the last year of his life—as he condemned the Vietnam War and pushed against the strife of the poor in America.
“What would Dr. King do? He’d tell you to tell the truth. But telling the truth is risky,” Dr. Dyson stated. “This is why we celebrate him. This is why his iconic status continues to resound and reside in our hearts, because he was willing to tell the truth.” When addressing #BlackLivesMatter detractors who argue “all lives matter,” Dr. Dyson chose to put away his vast vocabulary momentarily to make his rebuttal plain and simple: “If you’ve got a thumb that’s jacked up, and the rest of your fingers are alright, you’ve got to say the thumb matters, too. It don’t mean the pointer and the pinky don’t matter.”
He criticized the right wing for ignoring the achievements of President Obama, believing his race has been the cause for their discontent. “Is it because of his ideology? No. It is the epidermis fetish that has marked American society.” Dr. Dyson was poignant, prodigious and uplifting in his 25-minute speech, and gave the capacity crowd much to ponder while also crystallizing some already arrived at conclusions.
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based broadcast professional and music journalist whose work can be found in The Village Voice, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. Follow Allen on Twitter @headphoneaddict, and visit his music blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict.