After the church bells rang at Riverside Church in Harlem Monday afternoon, more than a dozen stars lined the podium to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Chris Rock, Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer were among the many award-winning actors to recite historic speeches of fellow civil rights heroes.
“Power anywhere where there’s people … let me give you an example of teaching people,” Jordan said, recalling Fred Hampton’s 1969 speech “History is a weapon.”
Hosted by the Campaign for Black Male Achievement and Blackout for Human Rights, a civil activist agency, the event, “MLK Now,” garnered hundreds of citywide residents to celebrate social advocacy.
“There’s no cavalry coming to save the day in our communities,” said Shawn Doe, CEO of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement. “We are the iconic leaders that we’ve been waiting for, we are the curators of the change we are seeking.”
“Creed” director and founding member of Blackout for Human Rights Ryan Coogler agreed with the history of trauma in the Black community. “We have been dealing with the same struggles … four of our heroes were murdered by gun violence,” said Coogler. “Martin Luther King murdered. Malcolm X murdered. Fred Hampton murdered in the streets of Chicago.”
Musical arrangements included neo-classic songstress India Arie, actress and singer Anika Noni Rose and hip-hop artists Samora Pinderhughes, Jeremie Harris and Christopher Jackson, who held the cardboard sign “Stop Killing Us” during their performance.
“Shirley Chisholm is one of my heroes,” Arie said prior to the performance of her song “I Am Light.” “She showed me what is possible, that I too could be unbought and unbossed.”
Meanwhile, it has been almost 50 years since King spoke at the podium of Riverside Church. A longtime friend of King, 89-year-old civil rights icon Harry Belafonte explained that teenagers are the root of change.
“I agree with all the grievances imparted,” Belafonte said. “But I do not agree with the solution … the gun will not be the answer to oppression.” His rendition of Patrice Lumumba’s speech “Independence Day” caused widespread cheers and whistles throughout the audience.
“Not one suffering, not one drop of blood,” Belafonte said. “We are proud of this struggle … down to our heart of hearts.” Belafonte also explained he was proud that the church continues to open its “holy doors” to the “voices of protest [and] liberation.”
Grammy-nominated hip-hop artist J-Cole was an interactive panelist and wrote the song “Free,” performed by Anika Noni Rose. Cole refuses to perform the song because it often makes him “breakdown and cry.” According to the lyricist, it is a constant reminder of Blacks who are killed by police brutality. In 2014, when Eric Garner died in a chokehold by NYPD officers, Cole explained he could not “watch the video.”
“We have become so numb to it,” he said. “Do we ever dive in and realize how not normal that is … as young Black men we all know that moment when you’re dealing with a police officer who’s on a power trip.”
Since the 1980s, thousands of MLK events have occurred across the city and the nation.