Brooklyn tradition continues with 37th annual tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — A host of luminaries commemorated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with music, performances, and an urgent call to defend democracy at Monday’s annual tribute, held for the 37th year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).
The yearly event has grown in stature to become not just Brooklyn’s celebration, but in many ways the nation’s tribute to Dr. King, with elected officials, artists and influential thinkers joining to remember and take stock. Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso served as the master of ceremony.
Several officials spoke about passing the torch from one generation to the next, including New York City Mayor Eric Adams.
“I’m not here because I was the fastest runner, I’m here because of the people before me,” he told the crowd.
Adams highlighted the many people of color (the majority of them from Brooklyn) besides himself who are holding high positions in government today, from House Minority Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries to Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez; City Council President Adrienne Adams; Public Advocate Jumaane Williams; and NYS Attorney General Letitia James.
“People of color are running the largest city in America,” he said. “With all this chocolate, what are we going to do with it? … What is our legacy?” Saying he wouldn’t allow others to “hijack the narrative,” he added, “We are at the right moment at the right time to pick up the baton and win the race.”
Jeffries called King “an American hero,” repeating the phrase for emphasis. “Like all of us, we stand on the shoulders of giants,” he said.
Council President Adams, the first woman of color to lead the City Council, said that King “had a passion for struggle, passion for justice and created a pathway for me and so many others.”
Gov. Kathy Hochul spoke on learning about King as a young schoolgirl and attending civil rights marches with her family. “We … knew his story could not die in that moment, and that is why we gather every single year, to refresh the memory, to teach the young children of our responsibilities,” she said, adding that these responsibilities included creating more affordable housing and a world-class education.
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer lauded the fact that “two thirds of the newly appointed judges are people of color, making the bench finally look like America.” He added, “Unfortunately, much of the bigotry faced by Martin Luther King is still here … but he never gave up.”
Dr. King’s words continue to inspire us in today’s struggles for reproductive justice, Black maternal health and racial equality, said Councilmember Crystal Hudson (Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant). She repeated the words King spoke in a sermon at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1956: “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”
Keynote speaker Sherrilyn Ifill, a nationally-recognized civil rights lawyer, writer, president and director-counsel of NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund from 2013 to 2022, electrified the crowd with her warning that America stands “just a hairsbreadth away from democratic collapse.”
“The America I see today has fallen far from its ideals,” Ifill said. A sizable portion of our nation’s leaders “do not share our fundamental beliefs in democracy, free and fair elections, the peaceful transfer of power … and the basic tenants of democracy.
“We are fighting for the very meaning of our lives and the lives of our children in this country,” she said. “It’s an existential fight.”
Ifill called our time “a moment of peril,” but also one of opportunity. “To take advantage of this opportunity, we need power.”
She urged her audience to become involved in all levels of civic life — to speak up in churches and libraries; to become involved in elections for sheriff and judges and civic boards; to vote, run for office, create collectives and mutual aid.
“Hold electeds’ feet to the fire, go to City Council meetings and board meetings, and strengthen our own institutions,” she said.
Dr. King “called on us to be intense political activists,” Ifill said. “We have not used that power to the fullest.”
Other speakers included BP Reynoso, BAM President Gina Duncan, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, NYC Commissioner of Cultural Affairs Laurie Cumbo, and BAM VP of Creative Social Impact Coco Killingsworth. Grammy-nominated performer and poet Allison Russell and the award-winning choir Sing Harlem entertained and inspired.
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