Xerona Clayton, organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and personal friend to Martin Luther King Jr., recalled the day she arrived at his Atlanta home to begin his journey to Memphis in 1968. King’s two sons, Martin and Dexter, long accustomed to their father’s hectic schedule which often led him miles from home, were especially hesitant to see him go. After pleading with him, blocking the door, and jumping on the hood of Clayton’s car in protest, King left against the wishes of his sons.
On the way to the airport, King knew he would have to alter his schedule for the good of his young family.
“When I come back, I’ve got to change my habits,” King told Clayton on the way to the airport. “I can’t go through this.”
King was murdered before he got the chance to put his realization into action.
From the pulpit of the Riverside Church in New York, where King delivered his “Beyond Vietnam” speech in 1967, Blackout for Human Rights’ #MLKNow 2019 sought to shine a light on the intimate moments of King’s life.
“This is the time of year we constantly hear the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” said host Jemele Hill, who met Ryan Coogler, founding Blackout for Human Rights member and director of Black Panther and Fruitvale Station at a Warrior-Cavaliers NBA Finals game, “but there’s so much we often miss whenever we discuss Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.” The event’s theme of intimacy was on full display, as the event featured an array of performances, speeches, live panels and prerecorded testimonials from King’s friends and contemporaries.
First on the schedule was a live chat between award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates and freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. in a two-tone baseball tee with “REMASTERED” across his chest, Coates and Ocasio-Cortez set the tone for the rest of the evening with an insightful discussion.
Ocasio-Cortez, who was raised in the Bronx while attending school in the wealthy enclave of Yorktown, recalled a moment which made her keenly aware of the differences between herself and her classmates, during a discussion on English as the primary language of the United States. Those subconscious cues, made more pronounced by the difference in the lives of her classmates and the lives of her cousins who attended Bronx public schools, would lead her to make a key change later in life after the death of her father.
“I don’t think it changed who I was,” she said, reflecting on her father’s death during her freshman year of college, “but I think it forced me to have a much more acute understanding…having my father pass away at such a long age forced a lot of questions about mortality, [like] ‘What am I here for?’” Choosing to leave her pre-med track, she soon found herself working to impact change more directly.
Though Ocasio-Cortez’s presence was undoubtedly a major selling point, the conversation eventually shifted toward King’s legacy, albeit (and through no fault of either TNC nor AOC) indirectly.
Coates, who revealed he both enjoyed and feared Ocasio-Cortez’s penchant for clapping back on social media, lauded New York’s 14th district representative for her moxie while wondering how tenable her interactions with online toxicity were, both for her personal wellbeing and the nature of her newfound place in politics. “My struggle,” said Ocasio-Cortez, who revealed the trigger to her clapbacks (don’t be verified in her mentions when she’s hungry) “is understanding that it’s a very deliberate strategy. If you try to attack and discredit the messenger, maybe you can discredit the message.” Though she’s yet to begin taking attacks personally, she saw in King another figure whose message and personal character and prowess were mocked and assailed at every turn, a fact #MLKNow would make crystal clear with John David Washington’s reading on “You Are Done,” a letter written to King by then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
In her lone mention of the current administration (one of few on the day) and its “current circumstances, with the abdication of responsibilities by people in power… at least for this moment, I feel a need for all of us to breathe fire,” a nod to her fiery presence and output on Twitter
“When he started getting into economics,” Ocasio-Cortez said of King, “things started to get very dangerous for him. I feel like that’s where we are picking up.” While the discussion yielded a bevy of friendly soundbites on the morality of billionaires in an increasingly dysfunctional economy (there can be none) her plans for the next step in her career (she’s focused on her first term) and the place of technology in our society (it needs interrogating and reshaping) Ocasio-Cortez was most effective when discussing King’s legacy in context of the present day and the relationship between government and activism. “I consider activism to be a part of our self-governance,” she said, adding that “social movements are the moral compass for public office and people who hold public office.” In noting the differences between organizing and realpolitik, Ocasio-Cortez would prefer to open doors for other agents of change.
#MLKNow also featured a selection of readings from agents of change from years past. Actor Leon’s reading of the story of Ona Judge, a slave who escaped the clutches of George Washington, was followed by Aisha Hinds’ emotional reading of Fannie Lou Hamer’s “First Class Citizens” letter. In it, Hamer laid out the injuries meted out to her by the state for trying to vote, as well as the challenges that lie ahead. Rapper Common’s spirited recitation of Frederick Douglass’ open letter to a former master was preceded by a reading of King’s “Kick Up Dust,” a letter written by then 17-year-old King while attending Morehouse College.
Interspersed throughout the event’s schedule were prerecorded vignettes featuring many of King’s peers and friends. Harry Belafonte, Andrew Young, Joan Baez and Clarence Jones, King’s friend and lawyer, shared a window into the private life of the public firebrand before his passing. Clayton, SCLC’s executive director, remembered King’s sense of humor, while Jones reminisced on his penchant for fake, irreverent eulogies.
“Much of the time I was the victim,” Young said. “he would take something somebody else said or did and blame it on me.” In perhaps the most telling moment of the event, Jones recalled King’s brand of gallows humor.
According to Jones, “He’d say, ‘Now Andy, when you do something foolish and you go out there and get assasinated, I’m gonna preach you the best eulogy.’” King’s phony sermons were in those moments were rife with off-kilter jokes and private moments. “By the time he got through, he’d have everyone laughing at what was a life-and-death situation,” Young said. “Mostly his life.”
King’s legacy was on full display during each of the remaining breakout panels and chats. Former NBA center turned activist and author Etan Thomas spoke to his mission to empower and embolden future generations of athletes with his authorship and activism, as well as the bravery of contemporary athletes who’ve taken on the mantle of athlete activism. Prior to Thomas’ chat with Faith in Action Pastor Michael McBride, the faith leader helmed a panel featuring Color of Change’s Rashad Robinson, Idalin Bobe of the Poor People’s Campaign, Philip Agnew of the Dream Defenders, and Desmond Meade of the Florida Rights Restoration Commission.
Meade, a former felon who completed law school after his release, was moved to action by the lack of humanity he felt after returning home upon serving his debt to society when he learned he’d be barred from owning a home in certain municipalities and even from voting for his wife during a run for public office. Guided by justice and in the shadow left by King’s legacy, Meade’s goal was realized on November 6th of last year, after Florida voted overwhelmingly to allow felons the vote. Bobe, daughter of a single mother who worked three jobs, saw the dissonance in the portrayal of poor people like her mother and reality.
While others could go home and brush it off...I had that urgency of now,” Meade said of the . “I knew that time was right to make a stand because if not now, when?”
“When we talk about reclaiming the legacy of Dr. King,” said Agnew, “we can’t just talk about the view of Dr. King that the country that murdered him has now claimed.” Near the pulpit where King once stood, #MLKNow showcased the long tail of King’s legacy, its impact across generations, and its power to spark lasting change.