Activists re-create iconic MLK speech
BARNET — On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. stood in the pulpit of the Riverside Church in Manhattan’s Upper West Side and delivered one of the most important and powerful speeches of his life.
Despite counsel from many of his allies, King condemned in no uncertain terms the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, linking the ultimately ill-fated military effort to racism and poverty.
On April 4, 1968, assassin James Earl Ray took King’s life on the balcony of a Memphis, Tenn., motel, one day after another momentous speech, his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” address.
On April 4, 2021, the film of a group of 23 activists (including Ripton’s Bill McKibben), academics, writers and actors’ re-creation of King’s speech will be broadcast via Zoom.
McKibben will also participate in a live panel discussion that will follow the Zoom recordings that comprise the film, according to project organizer and film director and producer Jay Craven of Barnet.
Anyone interested may log on at 7 p.m. on Sunday to hear it for no charge, according to Craven. On April 10 the film will be available online.
Those interested may find the Zoom link at kingandbreakingsilence.org.
Who will viewers see read portions of King’s words?
Many, Craven said, are “frontline activists,” including McKibben; some are from the world of theater, such as dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones; others are writers, such as Alice Walker and Ibram Kendi; there are musicians, including Arlo Guthrie and Roseanne Cash; several are academics and statesmen; and some are actors, notably Jane Fonda and Edward James Olmos.
“It’s a great list of people,” Craven said.
All signed on for the same reasons as did Craven, a teenager when King spoke — its power and relevance endures to this day.
“I think the speech was truly important because it was truly an act of courage and of conscience,” Craven said. “The speech itself makes so many connections, moving connections, among what he called the triple scourges of racism, militarism and poverty.”
For example, one passage in King’s speech reads:
“A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”
Joining McKibben on the panel discussion of the speech’s continuing resonance and relevance will be fellow activists Ash-Lee Henderson, co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Center; Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, a women’s anti-war group; and Corinne Sanchez, the executive director of Tewa Women United.
Craven said he’s acting on behalf of Vermont Peace Commemoration Committee, which has produced a series of online videos in the past year telling the story of the Vietnam War from the point of view of the peace movement and originally proposed the reading.
Craven, a board member of the group, volunteered to take the reins.
“I said that sounds like fun to me, and I can think of some people to approach who might be interested to read sections of the speech,” Craven said.
The film itself includes an introduction by organizers of the original event, and concludes with Mahalia Jackson singing “Joshua at the Battle of Jericho” and, said Craven, all but bringing the house down as King is “standing in the pulpit looking a little bit overwhelmed” at the crowd’s enthusiasm.
“He’s sort of vulnerable, and, you know, pleased, and a little bit awkward, and it’s a lovely little moment of Mahalia Jackson just going for broke and Martin Luther King just standing there after giving the final part of the speech,” Craven said. “And then we go into the panel.”
Craven, who in 1971 helped organize the large May Day protests against the war in Washington, D.C., emphasized both the galvanizing effect the speech had on the anti-war movement, and the enemies King thus made in an establishment that had cooperated with King in passing the landmark Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts.
He called King’s speech a true act of courage and conscience.
“It’s a literate, informed, emotionally powerful, politically sophisticated articulation of opposition to the war that constituted true leadership because it involved putting himself at risk to take this position,” Craven said.
And he hopes others will want to watch and hear the new version of a speech that Craven believes remains relevant today.
“It’s poetic. The language is great. To hear Arlo Guthrie and Roseanne Cash and Bill McKibben and the others, I found it energizing and moving,” Craven said. “I was glad to be a part of it.”
Those wishing to read or listen to King’s original speech may find it at tinyurl.com/punuzd5s.
By April 10 the new version will be available at tinyurl.com/58k8fymp.
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