The National Civil Rights Museum is co-producer of “Breaking the Silence,” a virtual event that debuts on April 4 as “an intergenerational call for unity and action.”
Several Memphis-area ministers and others actively engaged in community-support efforts have signed onto a letter boosting the event, which will feature recorded, online-readings by celebrities and activists of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s historic 1967 Vietnam speech.
The speech, delivered a year to the day before King’s assassination in Memphis on the balcony of the old Lorraine Motel, identified the triple threats of racism, militarism and extreme materialism. The virtual event on Sunday (April 4) is part of the museum’s safety-protocol observance of the annual commemoration.
“Dr. King’s assassination is a constant reminder of this nation’s turmoil, the issues that prevail and the hope that we will universally choose love as he advised us to do,” said Faith Morris, the museum’s chief marketing and external affairs officer.
Area ministers who signed onto the support letter are:
Rev. Cheryl Beard, CEO, The Rosa T. Beard Debutante Club, Inc.; Pastor Charlie Caswell, founder, Legacy of Legends CDC; the Rev. Earle J. Fisher, Ph.D., senior pastor, Abyssinian Baptist Church; Dr. Peter Gathje, director, Manna House; Rabbi Micah Greenstein, senior rabbi, Temple Israel; the Rev. Floridia Jackson, spiritual director, Memphis School of Servant Leadership; Dr. Kelvin D. Lake, lead pastor, Rhema Life Church; the Rev. Dr. Gina M. Stewart, senior pastor, Christ Missionary Baptist Church; and the Rev. Don E. Williams, retired pastor.
A live webinar putting King’s speech in today’s context will follow the pre-recorded reading.
Panelists for that program are Medea Benjamin, Code Pink founder; Ash-Lee Henderson, co-director of the Highlander Center; Bill McKibben, 350.org; and Director of the TEWA Women’s Center, Corrine Sanchez. Noted scholar, writer and activist Barbara Ransby will moderate the panel.
Dr. King’s address was controversial at the time because it marked his articulation of the relationship between the struggle for civil rights domestically and the global struggle against what he referred to as “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”
At the time, his speech, known as “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” drew intense criticism from institutions ranging from the New York Times and the Washington Post to the NAACP. Many felt he had moved outside of his narrow lane.
King’s target in 1967 was the escalating American war in Vietnam while decreasing the war on poverty. Program sponsors assert that in 2021 one could easily substitute “Black Lives, Native Americans or the poor and his charge would ring true as ever in the United States. Clearly it is our own humanity that is at stake.”
Filmmaker J. Craven, who created “Breaking the Silence,” said, “Dr. King talked about racism, militarism and poverty being the triple threat to progress. … I couldn’t help thinking about the timeliness of Dr. King’s speech all these years later.”
Frayser-area activist Caswell, who signed onto the letter circulated in association with the virtual reading of King’s ’67 speech, echoed that sentiment.
“Many of the elements in Dr. King’s speech are so relevant today,” Caswell said. “Education is a barrier for so many. It should not have taken a pandemic to give every child access to technology and laptops.
“Now, some of our children’s hotspots don’t work properly, so learning is an issue, especially in Frayser. These are the same children who fall behind in school, won’t be able to find a job or will only be able to get a low-wage job.
“Or, end up in jail and the cycle of poverty continues for another generation.”
AT A GLANCE
Each April 4th, the National Civil Rights Museum commemorates the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he stood on the balcony outside room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, the centerpiece of the museum. This year, the museum presents two virtual commemorations.
- Beginning at 5 p.m., “Remembering MLK” will reflect on King’s life, teachings, courage, diplomacy, philosophy, love and legacy through prayer, performances and reflections. Featured: King’s ally and civil rights icon, the Rev. James Lawson, and Dr. Bernard Richardson, executive officer for Religious Affairs at Howard University.
- At 6:01 p.m., the time King was shot, “attendees” will be taken to the Lorraine balcony for a global moment of silence followed by a rendition of King’s favorite gospel hymn, “Precious Lord,” performed by vocal ensemble Adajyo.
- The commemoration continues with the premier of “Caged,” a musical tribute written by African American composer Brian Nabors, performed by Iris Orchestra’s Artist fellows and Memphis Symphony Orchestra/University of Memphis fellows, featuring emerging African American and Latinx musicians.
- “Breaking the Silence” – an intergenerational call for unity and action. The virtual commemoration presents renowned activists such as Dr. Ibrahm X Kendi, Alice Walker, Jane Fonda and others delivering King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.