#MLKNOW, presented by Blackout for Human Rights and the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, was a day of celebration of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King. Hosted by Ryan Coogler at Riverside Church in New York City (where Dr. King gave his “Beyond Vietnam” speech) on January 18th, 2016, the event had young black and Latino artists deliver famous speeches by black Civil Rights leaders from across history. Chris Rock, Michael B Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Anika Noni Rose, Lin Manuel Miranda, Octavia Spencer, Andre Holland, Condola Rashad, Adepero Oduye, and Harry Belafonte read speeches Dr. King, Malcolm X, Shirley Chisholm, SoJourner truth and others.

The speeches were timely and could have been written now about recent issues in voters rights, police brutality, and government ignorance of the killing of black people by the state. I am thankful to have attended the event and I live tweeted for Black Girl Nerds as everyone who couldn’t attend the free event watched the livestream. I am thankful to Kendra James for getting me a press pass (and for letting me borrow her zoom lens). Here are some highlights of the afternoon for me, plus photos at the bottom.

Ryan Coogler, as emcee of the event, really struck me with how down-to-earth he is. His humility, his clear dislike for unnecessary fluff, and his earnestness were all present. Despite being the figurehead for the event and the organizations that put it together, anytime anyone praised him specifically, he always pushed that praise back towards the group or the person. He introduced each artist with brief words on how much their art meant to him specifically, but then allowed them to come up and speak the words without anyone’s personal commentary. The format of the event was to allow the words to speak for themselves.

Ryan was just as wrapped up in the performances as we were and sometimes it seemed clear that he forgot he had to go up and introduce the next person. When the words were too heavy and the weight was upon the audience in the silence after a speaker walked off the stage, here comes Ryan jogging on to the stage (like a b-ball player who forgot something on the court) to introduce the next artist. His lack of mask, lack of Hollywood filter, was amazingly refreshing and added to the sincerity of the event.

The musical performances at the event were wonderful — India.Arie, Bilal, Anika Noni Rose, Jussie Smollett, Karega Bailey, and Saul Williams are all fantastic artists and their lyrics were even more powerful on this day, in the beautiful church with amazing acoustics. But what struck me even more were the musical choices made by Samora Pinderhughes, a pianist who I believe provided many of the live musicians that day. He played piano (with occasional floor bass/cello? and saxophone) underneath many of the speeches.

Of course, this is how it works in church. Often, as a pastor is preaching, the organ player will improve along with the pastor, punctuating his words. Pindershughes did that extraordinarily, really adding to the mood of the words. He went fast or slow, choppy for anxiety, soft for words of thought… Feeling the music along with the words completed the journey the speakers were taking us on. It was a great choice that I loved.

I believe the speech choices had to have been chosen before the Oscar nominations were announced only a week or so before this event, so it’s amazing how it was Chris Rock — the host of one of the whitest Oscars in twenty years — speaking the words of James Baldwin: “You are expected to make peace with mediocrity.” That is what we are dealing with when we speak about #OscarsSoWhite. B

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lack artists and people of color are expected to make due with never being acknowledged, never being considered great. We are to be at peace with being allowed to act, being allowed to present nominations, and we are not allowed to be upset when our talent is ignored. There are other #OscarsSoWhite conversations out there, but this struck me very powerfully.

Actress Adepero Oduye spoke these words by Ida B Wells and she couldn’t finish the speech. One-quarter of the way through, she took her shoes off. One-third of the way through, she paused and asked for water. And half-way through, she decided she could not finish, she was feeling faint, and walked off stage. I don’t know what may have been going on personally for her, but it was one of those moments where you can’t ignore the power of words. Ida B Wells’ expose on lynching is so currently relevant that it is sickening. The facts she presents in her reports were harsh and she held nothing back when condemning them. It is hard to read those words, to hear them, without feeling overwhelmed with its presentness.

Thankfully, Kenny Leon was able to help Adepero off-stage and continue the speech for her, and the power of Wells’ words were made even more clear when Leon was able to immediately get into the rhythm of the speech, without prior practice. His cadence became that of a preacher and he delivered Well’s words with power and clarity. It was a tense moment but spoke to the way words can possess you. Never let anyone tell you words do not have power.


Harry Belafonte was the only speaker who said more than the speech he read. He even mentioned it and the entire audience waved him off, basically saying, “You’re Harry Belafonte, you can do whatever you want.” He shared his history with Dr. King, reminded us that it was the youth who began the Civil Rights Movement, and just blessed us with wisdom and insight. It was beautiful to see Coogler, his brother Keenan, and Michael B Jordan walk Belafonte on and off the stage. It was a testament to not only the intergenerational solidarity, but also spoke to the amount of time we’ve been fighting this fight. Belafonte said he and Dr. King were in their mid-20s when they began and he is now 88. It reminded me of King’s famous quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

What was so frustrating about the day was how little major news outlets were covering the event. I got home and my grandmother, who’d turned to different news channels throughout the day, said she barely heard anything about the event at Riverside Church. We live in Harlem only a few crosstown blocks away. This really spoke to the innovation and youth of this event: Coogler, CBMA, and United Blackout really took advantage of what the youth are attuned to: social media and live streaming. And while this is the wave of the future, the old school media outlets should have had stronger coverage of this event. High profile actors like Chris Rock and Michael B Jordan were at a FREE event in Harlem with dozens of other black and Latino artists. Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy nominees.

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Hopefully next year, the major networks wise up and provide televised streaming of the event as well. Because while it is most important and powerful for the young people to have access to this event, older generations who aren’t on the Internet or social media need to see that young people do care and that we are making change. They need to see that there is hope to be found in the younger generations; often it is because they are not looking for it, but then that means it needs to be placed in front of them.

Finally, as Jamie herself put it:

And it’s true. We are thankful to Ryan Coogler, the Campaign for Black Male Acheivement (list others) and the artists for putting together this event. It allowed many people, especially the youth, to connect with these words in a fresh way; it brought these very relevant words into our present day and reminded us that while things have not changed all that much, we can still harness the powers of our youth, of technology, of celebrity, of art, of community to provide hope and unity. It is now up to us to use these powers, whether we spread it outward to affect change or treasure it inside of us as hope and self-care when the world is darkest around us.

There were dozens of other fantastic moments at the MLK event, but these are the ones that struck me personally. Check out the photos below and support Blackout For Human Rights, The Campaign for Black Male Achievement, and watch out for this event next January. I am sure it will only grow.

Click the photos for larger resolution. Or click here for my #MLKNOW album on Flickr.