The event honored the legacy of the civil rights icon, who would have turned 90 years old last week. Local elected officials reflected on King’s words, and spoke about how they apply today.
“Celebrating Dr. King’s birthday is not a day off, it’s a day on,” said Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, who co-emceed the event with Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo. “It’s a day to reflect on Dr. King’s sacrifice and the civil rights struggle.”
Senator Chuck Schumer said Dr. King “held up a giant mirror to America” and forced the country to look at itself. He said America “did not like what it saw.”
“That began the path to change,” he said. “We came a long way, but we have longer to go.”
Both Jeffries and Schumer related King’s commitment to social justice to their roles opposing the Trump presidency in 2019. Jeffries, the fifth-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, derided Trump as “the birther-in-chief” and the “grand wizard of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”
New York’s senior senator said he was horrified by Trump’s response to the Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and shocked by the president’s orders to separate immigrant families.
Now, Schumer said, Trump is fighting for the border wall, which he said would be the “worst possible symbol America could have.”
“The best symbol we have it the Statue of Liberty, not a 30-foot concrete wall,” he said. “We’ll fight to keep it that way.”
Schumer invoked King’s now-famous letter that he penned from a Birmingham jail.
“We will not wait in Dr. King’s memory,” Schumer said. “Keep up the fight, I certainly will.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio, meanwhile, said King didn’t just speak about racial equality, but economic justice as well. De Blasio said in this respect, the country has a lot farther to go.
He touted the ways in which New York City is “breaking out of that status quo.”
Reiterating two policies he outlined in his recent State of the City speech, the mayor said guaranteed health care and paid personal time were two ways to address those injustices.
“That’s what we strive to do in this city, and that’s what we celebrate this day,” de Blasio said. “A city for everyone in the image of Martin Luther King.”
But City Council Speaker Corey Johnson highlighted the crumbling subways, lead paint crisis and public housing problems as some of the ongoing issues facing New York City residents.
“It’s easy to talk about the mess and disgrace at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” Johnson said. “It’s important to not be silent about what’s happening in our own city.”
Peppered in between speeches by the elected officials were rousing musical performances by the Brooklyn Interdenominational Choir and Oddisee, a hip-hop artist based in Washington, D.C.
The keynote speaker at BAM’s celebration of MLK was Tarana Burke, who founded the “Me Too” movement more than a decade before the popular hashtag went viral.
Burke, who has worked in social justice for more than 25 years, began her work in Selma, Alabama, as part of the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, which was founded by veterans of the Civil Rights Movement.
As senior director of the Brooklyn-based group Girls for Gender Equity, Burke has worked with young girls in middle schools who experienced sexual violence. It was through her experience working with these girls that she started a movement centered on survivors of sexual harassment and assault.
“Me Too is not a campaign, it’s a movement, because our work is about collectively expanding possibilities for our survivors,” she said. “It’s a survivor’s movement.”
Burke noted that while Dr. King was the face of the Civil Rights Movement, it was oft-forgotten women who selected him to be the leader. Strategists and organizers like Rosa Parks and Diane Nash were not only peers to King, she said, but laid the groundwork for the movement.
“He wasn’t afraid of women’s leadership,” she said. “In fact, he relied on them.”
Reflecting on how the perception of movements have changed, Burke reminded hundreds in the audience that movements are incremental and built over time. They grow and change, and are both forgiving and demanding.
“They are grounded in the belief of human capacity for change,” Burke said. “We have to believe that something impossible to others is possible.”
As for the “Me Too” movement she started a decade ago, Burke said it won’t be slowing down anytime soon.
“We are in it for the long haul,” she said. “There is no going back.”