New York City’s biggest celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday has been at Brooklyn Academy of Music for a while now, giving politicians a chance to trot out their pet peeves in between dollops of music and remembrance of the great civil rights leader. This year was no different in some ways, but tellingly different in others.
With an almost all African-American crowd lining up in the freezing weather before 8 a.m. to get seats, the packed-house event kicked off after 10, all the time with a huge projection of the kindly visage of King looking askance on a giant screen. Soon, we were treated to the New York Fellowship Mass Choir’s musical invocation, starting with (appropriate enough for the day) “Come Thou Almighty King,” followed by a gospel take on “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” literally taking us to church and becoming a clap-a-long song before segueing into a solemn-but-slightly flubbed “The Star-Spangled Banner” which got everyone on their feet before finishing off with the civil-rights anthem “Lift Every Voice” (see the videos below, and get the spirit yourself).
The day was filled with less-than-subtle but definitely understandable and justified symbolism. Outgoing BAM head Karen Brooks Hopkins announced a youth arts program “in light of recent events” (i.e. Eric Garner, Michael Brown) and a screening of “Selma,” which received a Best Picture and Best Original Song Oscar nom, but nothing for its actors or directors, at the BAM cinema and another screening of “The Central Park Five” documentary (about other black youths who experienced injustice). Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams served as emcee, talking about his own time as a cop and holding up a sign from a police demonstration protester that said “IMPOSSIBLE,” suggesting instead that the community should take it to mean “I-M POSSIBLE” and soon laying out a pro-gay, pro-children, anti-stop-and-search, pro-affordable-housing, pro-women, pro-multi-cultural agenda.
NYC Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito thanked MLK for his struggle, but insisted that the journey wasn’t over for him or us, that we still needed to “eradicate injustice and inequality.” Sen. Charles Schumer came out to a few boos, but won the crowd over with the same speech he’d given for the past few years about how King held a mirror at America and how it saw something they didn’t like and how he’s still holding it up today. Then Schumer railed about voting rights and suppression that got a lot of positive reaction from the crowd and ended with his usual excerpt from King’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail.”
As Adams introduced Mayor Bill de Blasio, the ex-cop told the crowd, “I did not elect the PBA (Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association), I elected a guardian,” which the crowd erupted at. de Blasio himself got a very warm welcome, weighing into the ongoing fray with local police by insisting “there is no contradiction between public safety and fairness,” going on to say how King “would speak to us about the power of peaceful protest,” referring to the recent Michael Brown demonstrations and how we must “reject hateful voices on all sides,” (meaning not just the PBA but also some violent protestors). As an example, he held out the recent Father’s Day march which led to an end of the hated, ineffective, discriminatory “stop and frisk” policy. Compare this to police-friendly former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s chilly reception last year after he broke up the Occupy crowds.
After de Blasio and a brief return of the choir came a parade of politicos who came out evoking the preacher-style speaking of the man being honored that day. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries told how he met former civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis who told him, “I don’t want you coming to Washington to get into trouble unless it’s good trouble …” and later himself saying “Dr. King was a good troublemaker,” before telling the crowd “go out there and get into some good trouble!” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was warmly but cooly received at first, speaking from a script but soon rousing the crowd and herself when she made demands on Washington.
“How many Americans have to quit their jobs at the birth of a baby or when your mother or father are dying? Let’s give workers the leave they need to care for families!” she declared to applause. Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson spoke of injustice also, trumpeting the change in recent NYC marijuana laws and generally how “we should not criminalize young people and destroying their future” before evoking King as a model of courage. Another musical interlude came from R&B singer Sandra St. Victor who covered ’70s soul legends Gil Scott-Heron (“Winter in America”) and Curtis Mayfield (“We People Who Are Darker Than Blue”), noting that their words still rang true today.
Rep. Yvette Clarke, who praised King as a radical and agitator and described her pride in the Affordable Care act before commending world leaders for not bringing their solidarity over the attacks at Charlie Hebdo in Paris to the terrorism horrors of Boko Haram in Nigeria, brought out “another warrior,” keynote speaker Dr. Cornel West. West did nothing less than bring down the house with his powerful oratory style, complaining that King had been made into a kindly Santa-like figure instead of the revolutionary figure that he really was before evoking his own favorite ’70s soul/R&B performers including Scott-Heron and Mayfield plus The Stylistics, Donny Hathaway and Nina Simone and comparing them to King — “He was a funkateer, just like George Clinton and Bootsy Collins!” West insisted.
The rest of the powerful half hour speak is worth hearing in full, which you can do through the videos here. The choir returned to close the show with another civil-rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” which concluded with a rousing call-and-response coda that kept the crowd on its feet.
Not a bad way to remember Dr. King for three hours on his special day. Next year, you should see it for yourself.
Jason Gross is the social media manager for TheBlot Magazine.