Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebrated at BAM
Brooklyn’s 32nd Annual Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was infused with a message of finding joy in resistance to the forces now in power. Men dangerous for their racism, ignorance and greed, have given us the opportunity to show our mettle against evil and ready to step into freedom’s battle.
We were not with Nat Turner or John Brown, did not face the fire hoses, dogs and clubs on the streets of Birmingham and were not among the Freedom Riders and the unnamed marchers with John Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
But we are here now, and the message on this MLK Day, was to stay focused on voting, education, and organizing, and don’t get distracted by the man with his hair on fire. The folks gathered at BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House heard their elected representatives give the word that there is work to be done by them in their office, and others on the street. Following are excerpts from a few of the remarks made and the keynote by Professor Jelani Cobb. DG
Borough President Eric Adams: “These 3 cards shaped my childhood. Those of you who are old enough to remember 3-card Monte. On my way to buy my clothing for school, I decided to stop and play 3-card Monte. Lost a $100. Back in the ‘70s, you know what a hundred dollars was? I was so busy trying to find the red card. The sleight of hand, movement, the swiftness, of the person distracted me from my mission. Busy trying to find the red card. Donald Trump is chumping us. He’s playing 3-card Monte. He has us so busy watching the idiot behavior of his buffoonery, we are missing the entire plan. This is the red card. Just go back to New Orleans when they had a massive hurricane. While we were mourning our kids and our lives, Halliburton and Cheney were making billions of dollars by rebuilding New Orleans. Who saw the red card? It’s not about Korea, it’s about the multibillion-dollar military industrial complex. Continued on Page 3
Gotta keep focused. Don’t be distracted by the 3-card Monte of today. Don’t lose our attention. 3 types of people we need right now: those who negotiate, those who legislate and those who agitate. Yes, go down to 42nd Street and raise your voice and agitate. But let’s legislate to make sure that we don’t allow these four years to go on by saying, we’re going to wait until the next four years. Those next 4 years turn into 8 years. Donald Trump is not going to lose one vote because of his madness, because there’s madness all over this country. That is why we must legislate. It’s a combination of the agitators and the negotiators and legislators that move this agenda forward.
These are great moments and great times, and we’re ready for it. I want to make this very clear to you. These are the times we live for. Put your hair in a ponytail, put some Vaseline on your face…(Applause)
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez: ICE agents now routinely undermine justice by rounding up immigrants in our courthouses. I will do all I can do to gain “sensitive locations status” for our courthouses so that we can end this criminal practice.
We do not believe that mass incarceration makes us safer. I understand the disproportionate impact on Black and Brown people that mass incarceration has led to, and that’s why I just recently announced that on low-level cases and misdemeanor cases that city attorneys will no longer seek bail.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: As we come here today to celebrate the remarkable life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and recognize how much progress our country has made in the years since. We also must recognize how much more work must be done. Obviously, our nation has taken a step backwards. As I look back at 2017, I can’t help but feeling a bit of despair at that year which was so divisive. So disturbing. Even demoralizing. We all heard more stories than we can stand about hate. About violence. About growing division among people across our beautiful state.
And in Charlottesville, we saw disgusting hatred on awful display. Hatred that was made even more painful by our own president’s comments when he blamed “both sides” in the violence in Virginia. Make no mistake. Hate was brought to Virginia by racists and Neo-Nazis, not the peaceful protestors who were standing up for a more tolerant and just society.
We have to call out these racist comments for what they are and fight back with political action. This was also a year of policies specifically designed to attack the working poor, the elderly, millions of vulnerable Americans. Men and women, especially Black and Brown men and women who are struggling and working as hard as they can to provide for their families. And you can add to this the administration’s commitment to continuing the failing war on marijuana that sends thousands of young people, Black men and women who have never committed a violent crime, off to prison, to see just how far we still have to go.
What do we do in a time like this? He (King) says, “Our lives begin to end the day we are silent about the things that matter”. And that’s what all of you have been doing. Since the very first day of this presidency, you have stood up. You have spoken up. You have marched, and I stand here as an American and a person of faith. It is inspiring to watch all of you turn those words into actions.
Jelani Cobb: I am an historian. I’m going to speak specifically to my brothers and sisters from Haiti. I want to say thank you to your contributions to the freedom of Black people in the world. We hear endlessly about the greatness of American democracy, we’re taught about the achievements of the Founding Fathers. Our young people are learning in the schools about the Louisiana Purchase. And how in 1803, Thomas Jefferson negotiated this fire-sale price of $15 million dollars that doubled the size of the United States, they had 13 states that in whole or in part, are carved out of that purchase. This is a great moment in American history we’re told. But they conveniently leave out the part about Napoleon being motivated to make that deal by the catastrophic loss that had been inflicted upon him by the people of Haiti. We’re taught that in 1808, the United States became the first great power to abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade. We’re not taught that it was the example of Haiti that sent a shock wave of fear. And people began to think maybe we need to cut the South before people get hold of this example and start trying to live the way that they did. So, these are the communities that we respect. These are the people who have come here against great odds. These are people whom this country is intimately and intricately indebted to. We cannot talk about the story of American history or American liberty without talking about the people of Haiti or talking about the African continent which supplied the labor that built this country.
There are some things we need to talk about today. I’m very pleased, I’m a historian, I’m a writer and I could not be more happy to see that annually we recognize Dr. King’s legacy. This is important. And they understood the importance of this. The origins of this day coming directly from that terrible moment 50 years ago this year when Dr. King was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. 4 days after his assassination, his colleagues, his widow, gathered together to complete the march that Dr. King was set to lead on April 3rd. They did so symbolically and concretely following through on the work that he had set out to do. It was in that week, in the week in which he was killed, that Congressman John Conyers introduced a bill to make his birthday a national holiday. The bill went nowhere. But the lesson they took from Dr. King’s example was that we had to persevere if anything were to be achieved. And they continued and continued and continued. They tried in 1979, and got close to having Congress pass a bill, and then in 1983, they passed the bill, and it was signed into law and became a national holiday. We recognize Dr. King’s achievements as a result of this. There are some places, of course, that try to skew in a different direction and recognize Robert E. Lee’s birthday. We know who they are, but this is an achievement. But it comes with a particular set of fine print. In it, we see that one of the implications, unforeseen implications of having Dr. King recognized by the official channels of American Government and power authority, would be a circumstance such that we witnessed recently in which the 45th President of the United States, fresh off of having insulted one community, a series of communities in the long, litany of racist diatribes he has issued, not just since he’s been in the White House, but since he’s been in public life, could, nonetheless, turn around and praise Dr. King’s message of equality.
I have to say, he’s forgotten who Dr. King was. And I lament the moment that a man such as Dr. King could be commemorated by a man such as Mr. Trump. Dr. King understood this. In 1967, looking at the hallmark achievements of the Civil Rights Movement. They had fought for and achieved the passage of a Civil Rights Act in 1964. That had fought for and achieved the passage of a Voting Rights Act in 1965. And they had begun to feel an increasing headwind against their attempts to create more reform and make way for more equality in the United States. It is in that context that he sat down and wrote a book called Where Do We Go from Here, Chaos or Community. In it he said, “The backlash is nothing new. It is the surfacing of old prejudices, hostilities and ambivalences that have always been there. The white man’s action today is rooted in the same problem that has characterized the American problem ever since the Black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation. The source of this backlash is the congenital deformity of racism that has crippled the nation from its inception. Historically, it was so acceptable in American life that it’s still only white that lightly burdens the conscience. No one surveying the moral landscape of our nation could overlook the pathetic wreckage of commitment and twisted and turned into a thousand shapes under the stress of prejudice and irrationality”. Dr. King understood that there was this cycle that people of conscience gathered together and worked. That we actually pushed ourselves closer to actually conveying the existence in this world and that there is a countermeasure that happens as a result of it. This backlash. There’s this backlash moment that we are inhabiting now. But we can chart this backlash to the moment in which a person is able to stand up in public and say that he was running to prevent Mexican rapists from taking over. And he was allowed to continue to exist in American life and taken seriously.
I’ll tell you this, as a historian I know these things. That that was an interesting week for me. That this statement was made on the 16th of June 2015. On the 17th of June 2015, we witnessed the atrocity that happened at Emmanuel AME Church in South Carolina. We witnessed a young man in all his destruction that took the lives of 9 people. In the midst of this, one person, who was wounded, asked him why he was doing this, and he said, because you all are raping our women and taking over the world. And we had seen this language deployed, twice in the same week. I’m not saying there is a causal relationship between these two things but I’m saying they’re responding to the same historical threat that Dr. King tried to warn us about. So, what do we do in this moment? How do we move forward?
When Dr. King in 1967 came out against the Vietnam War, he warned us of what he called the triple threats. The triple evils. Racism, militarism and economic exploitation. If we look at our current political landscape, at our current leadership, it would appear they took those words that Dr. King uttered and used them as a how-to guide. These are the exact issues we see. Racism disposed from the highest offices. And enabled by people who ought to know better. We see economic exploitation of the tax bill that will harm people who are so broken and intoxicated with the liquor of racism that they can hardly tell that they were being harmed. We see militarism, where is this reality? We see the president tweet about nuclear conflict? Is this the world that we actually live in? It’s at that point we have to ask ourselves the questions and recognize the true value of Dr. King. I want to remind us today that not simply Dr. King, but all of our heroes, we commemorate them, we celebrate them. Not for what they did during easy times, but because what they did was to achieve their accomplishments during moments that were most difficult. So surveying the landscape of 1967, Dr. King posed that we had to look forward, that we had to look at the things that united us rather than the things that divided us. The version of populism and toxic version of populism that we’re seeing which is pitted one group of people vs. another group of people has made it seem that wrongdoing could so easily be called and coordinated as being recognized by the color of one’s skin. That form of populism was the antithesis of what Dr. King was trying to achieve in 1967 when he said we have to organize the poor people in this country. We have to organize the people who are commonly afflicted. We have to organize people so they do not fall prey to the same divide-and-conquer tactics that have defined the history of the United States. I want all of us to think for a moment about one thing that Dr. King said in closing. When he received the Nobel Peace Prize, he took a moment in that speech to say that he wanted to explain the meaning of the phrase “We Shall Overcome”. He said that people understand when we’re singing this, they’re believing that we’re saying this to our opponents, but in actuality, it’s a mantra. We’re saying this to ourselves. He says this phrase helps renew our hope but gives the uncertainties of the future. He says it gives our weary feet renewed strength as we march on toward the city of freedom. When our days grow dreary with low-hanging clouds, and our nights grow darker than a thousand midnights, we will, nonetheless, know that we are witnessing the creative turmoil of a new civilization struggling to be born. Dr. King told us to look at these dark moments and see within it the creative tension of two civilizations struggling to be born. That civilization has not yet been born, that march that he began has not yet been completed. That is the work he left to us and that is the work that most assuredly was inspired by his example, “we shall overcome”.