While the topics that the speakers touched on ranged from pushing back against President Donald Trump to the injustices facing the black community, they all had a common theme: a call to action and justice.
Although New York City’s top elected officials spent most of the time at the lectern, the keynote speaker who captured the crowd’s attention the best was Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times Magazine.
Hannah-Jones created the 1619 Project, a publication, podcast series and initiative observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of slavery in America.
The investigative reporter began by citing a passage from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, though not the paragraphs that she said allow his message to be “homogenized and commodified.”
She noted that King gave that speech in 1963, five years before his assassination. In those remaining five years, she said, his rhetoric became increasingly radical, including making demands.
“The demand was not simply that white children and black children can one day hold hands and sing kumbaya,” Hannah-Jones said. “It was a demand for justice, a demand for this country to live up to its creed.
“We have to reset the way King has been used now actually as a tool of oppression,” she added. “We don’t talk about the radical King, the King who was demanding not only justice, but repair.”
The 1619 Project, which Hannah-Jones called her “life’s dream,” sends the message that anti-black racism “is in the DNA of this country.”
More than 150 years before the United States was even founded, the first enslaved Africans were sold in Virginia.
Even as Thomas Jefferson was writing the words to the Declaration of Independence, he owned 130 human beings. The unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness “would not count” for one-fifth of the U.S. population in chattel slavery.
“We are a nation founded on an idea of liberty that was a complete lie for a large segment of the population,” she said. “In his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, Dr. King is going back to that founding moment to say it’s time for the country to live up to its founding ideals.”
Hannah-Jones said she also tried to show in the 1619 Project that black Americans, more than any other group, have fought to make the United States a democracy.
The changes to the Constitution and laws passed during Reconstruction, the period after the Civil War in which formerly enslaved people were serving in government alongside whites, produced some of the strongest civil rights protections the country has ever seen, she said.
Among those were the 1866 Civil Rights Act that outlaws discrimination, the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, the 14th Amendment demanding equal protection of all citizens before the law, and the 15th Amendment, which tied citizenship to suffrage.
Hannah-Jones noted that the 14th Amendment in particular laid the groundwork for the children of immigrants to have birthright citizenship.
“That is because of black Americans’ resistance and struggle,” she said.
Following Reconstruction, however, was a century of what Hannah-Jones called “apartheid and racial terrorism,” including Jim Crow in the south and housing segregation in the north.
She said black Americans had to “wage a war against their own countrymen” yet again to move the United States toward democracy. What followed was the second wave of the Civil Rights Movement.
During this era, leaders including King ensured the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 1965 Voting Rights Act, 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
Hannah-Jones said every other rights movement in the country, from women’s rights to LGBTQ rights to disability rights, “owes its inheritance and legacy” to the black resistance struggle.
“There’s something about being at the bottom where you just don’t want to get rights for yourself,” she said. “You understand the importance of universal rights for all human beings.”
Even today, the legacy of slavery continues, as black Americans are still struggling for the country to treat them as full citizens, Hannah-Jones said.
“We are fighting for democracy in a country that doesn’t think we all deserve it,” she said.
In the 2016 presidential election, more than 90 percent of black Americans voted for Hillary Clinton, and effectively against President Donald Trump. Ninety-eight percent of black women voted against Trump, she noted.
“If we want to see King’s dream finally fulfilled, not a homogenized dream of people holding hands, but a radical vision where we repair the damage that has been done to black Americans,” Hannah-Jones said, “I would recommend that we listen to black women.”
Trump was a common target by elected officials who spoke at the MLK celebration. Senator Chuck Schumer called the president “fundamentally dishonest” and a “liar who appeals to bigotry and divisiveness.”
“Are we going to dump Trump?” Schumer said to raucous applause. “As I said, he’s got to go.”
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who like Hannah-Jones also criticized how King’s legacy has been “sanitized,” called Trump a “bigot only missing a hood.” He implored attendees to protest injustices like King, whom he deemed a “righteous agitator,” a revolutionary and a “rabble-rouser.”
“We are in a movement right now,” Williams said. “History will look back at us and ask, where were you when children were put in cages?”
Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke about King’s fierce opposition to the Vietnam War, and related that to today’s “endless wars” in Iraq, Afghanistan and, perhaps soon, with Iran.
He noted that those conflicts led to the deaths of 6,000 Americans, and cost the country $6.4 trillion that could have been spent on universal pre-kindergarten in America, stopping the rise of emissions or fixing every road, bridge, subway, school and park in the country.
The mayor quoted Dr. King, who said in a 1967 speech that “a time comes when silence is betrayal.” De Blasio urged the audience not to participate in that betrayal.
“Don’t ever be silent,” he said. “Stand up.”
Another speech that stirred the crowd at BAM came from Borough President Eric Adams, who noted the hypocrisy in how governments and officials responded differently to crisis taking place in white communities as opposed to communities of color.
He said when gun violence from handguns “carved highways of death” in black communities across the country, “it was an incident.” Whereas when AK-47s and assault rifles led to mass shootings in suburban communities, “it was a crisis.”
He drew a similar contrast to the government’s response to the crack epidemic plaguing urban communities. But when the opioid crisis hit, “we saw the government rise up.”
The borough president brought the hypocrisy down to the borough level. He said a group of mothers showed him bite marks from rat infestations that have overrun public housing.
Adams and his partners came up with a device to kill rats at Borough Hall. But the use of the device led to outrage from animal rights activists.
“You’re saying in essence, these precious rodents are more important than babies in our communities,” he said. “I’m unapologetic about the realities people go through everyday. That’s what Dr. King was about.”
Adams went on to criticize the effects of gentrification as “pushing out black and brown” residents, as well the widening gap of inequality in the city.
“This meeting we have here today, this is to reignite our spirits,” he said. “This is to put us on the mission.”
He touted his new initiative, “Breaking Bread, Building Bonds,” which seeks to assemble groups of diverse residents over small dinners in an effort to combat growing hate crimes and anti-Semitism.
“We have to build together and be about what Dr. King was about,” Adams said. “It’s about how to live in the city together.”