Almost five decades after Dr. Martin Luther King’s death, we find ourselves in the middle of what has to be the largest Black liberation movement in years.
Various police killings and injust practices continue to highlight problems the nation has ignored since the passing of the civil rights leader.
On the week that would have marked the late leader’s 87th birthday, social justice groups Blackout for Human Rights and The Campaign for Black Male Achievement celebrated Dr. King’s legacy and more with MLK Now at the legendary Riverside Church in Harlem, New York.
Monday night’s event highlighted historic speeches by civil rights heroes like MLK, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, Sojourner Truth, and Shirley Chisholm, recited by Lin Miranda-Manuel, Andre Holland, Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, and civil rights icon Harry Belafonte.
There were also performances by India Arie, Saul Williams, and surprise guest Jussie Smollett. The Empire star sang a powerful rendition of “Strange Fruit” by Nina Simone.
The entire eight-hour program was something to remember, but here are the best moments from the monumental celebration.
1. Chris Rock Channels James Baldwin
Following Creed star Michael B. Jordan’s take on Fred Hampton’s “Power Anywhere There’s People,” the Oscar host didn’t miss a beat while reciting Baldwin’s 1963 letter, “My Dungeon Shook.” Baldwin wrote the letter to his nephew James to paint a harrowing portrait of life as a Black man in America.
Rock’s moving rendition brought emotion and truth to the late poet’s rhetoric of integration, self-love, and perseverance. One of the only celebs to memorize his speech, the audience rose out of their church pews to give the comedian a standing ovation.
2. Ryan Coogler Is Proof The Academy Missed The Mark On Black Talent
Ryan Coogler wasn’t just the host of the MLK celebration, but a curator and driving force behind changing the narrative of how Americans should celebrate the national holiday. The Creed and Fruitvale Station director is also the founder of the Blackout for Human Rights collective and took a grassroots approach in setting up the event. Teaming up with Ava DuVernay and Jesse Williams, the 29-year-old proved his passions stretch outside the lines of Hollywood. MLK Now came just days after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, referencing the fact no people of color were nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this year.
Coogler’s incorporation of Tessa Thompson reciting Angela Davis’ “Freedom Speech” and Manuel-Miranda’s tearful take of “Beyond Vietnam,” shows how much talent resonates within the Black creative community. The director was also in awe of legends like Harry Belafonte and quickly gave love and praise to every act by sharing a special story about their connections.
3. Coogler & J. Cole Explain Why Black Youth Matters
J. Cole didn’t perform during the event, but had a powerful conversation with Coogler about the Black Lives Matter movement and their respective takes on what African-Americans should do about the injustice in their neighborhoods.
The moment was mostly ignored by blogs and entertainment outlets, who instead reported on Cole’s recently revealed marriage, a dig the rapper’s manager took to Twitter to discuss.
Cole, who penned “Be Free” for Eric Garner and Michael Brown, discussed the need for more Black-owned businesses and the hope of eradicating the idea that “the system” is against Black values. Coogler gave his own take on the matter, explaining how he debunked the notion of Black on Black crime by understanding how mixed narratives about African-Americans have been pushed to the mainstream.
Coogler explained he invited Cole to the event in an effort to reach the youth, a sentiment many teenagers agreed with.
4. Octavia Spencer Reaches The Mountaintop
Award-winning actress Octavia Spencer rounded out the star-studded performances with her take on MLK’s “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop,” the last speech the leader gave before his assassination. Coogler explained why he asked Spencer to participate in the event by looking back on when they first worked together on Fruitvale Station. He told the audience he was captivated by Spencer and her performance as Oscar Grant’s mother.
As audience members of all ages looked on, Spencer recited, “I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man, Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
5. Harry Belafonte Shares Wisdom From Martin Luther King, Jr.
After reciting Patrice Lumumba’s 1960 speech about Congo independence, Harry Belafonte shared words of wisdom he himself learned from Dr. King, recalling that many of the Civil Rights Movement leaders were teenagers. He also said Dr. King didn’t want to be a part of the movement initially, but later realized the importance of voting rights, equal rights, and education to the Black community after speaking with his wife, Coretta Scott King.
Belafonte then spoke about Dr. King’s next strategy before his death – The Poor People’s Campaign.
“In all that we achieved with Dr. King and all that we have fought for in terms of voting rights, equal rights, and education, we still sit in a place that has denied us,” Belafonte said. “In the last days when I spoke to Dr. King before his assassination—before his murder—we met in my home, as was a common practice, to discuss strategy. The next big campaign was to be The Poor People’s Campaign. Dr. King came to us to give us our last instructions. He was on his way to Memphis.”
Check out the entire show in the video above.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty | VIDEO CREDIT: The Riverside Church, Twitter