Those who conclude the energy of the racial justice summer of 2020 has been lost should think again. So advises Chelsea Miller, 26, who led protesters through New York City streets after George Floyd’s murder and never quit the fight. She told an Apollo Theater audience Sunday that the energy from 2020 had gone into “hibernation,” but not disappeared.
The discussion happened at WNYC's 17th annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration — and the 10th in partnership with the Apollo and in collaboration with the March on Washington Film Festival. The salute, which was in-person for the first time since the start of the pandemic, coincided with what would have been King’s 94th birthday and came just ahead of today’s MLK National Day of Service. Sunday's event included a interviews as well as musical and spoken word performances.
“Notes from America” radio show and podcast host Kai Wright interviewed Miller before a packed Apollo audience. He asked the 26-year-old how she would respond to those who feel “the promise and revolutionary energy” of spring and summer 2020 – when protests swept the city and nation after Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis – now feels “distant, depressingly.”
“When a lot of people say that the energy has waned, I think that the energy … went into hibernation,” said Miller, co-founder of the youth civil rights organization Freedom March NYC. Activists, she explained further, are recovering and redefining for themselves what sustainable change looks like. But she added that the energy of 2020 is manifesting itself in local communities, political campaigns and other outlets.
The exchange struck a chord with audience member Wanda Shipman, who grew up in Harlem and now lives in the Bronx.
“Hibernation, I like the way she put it. They're resting. They're at peace for now,” she said. “But we will get strong and continue what we started.”
Wright also interviewed Princeton African American studies professor Imani Perry, who discussed the significance and history of Nina Simone’s song “Young, Gifted and Black,” released in Harlem in 1969 and a kind of affirmation for Black identity. It followed by a searing rendition by the musical ensemble the Dream Launchers.
Perry spoke to the continuity and divergence of historic and contemporary racial justice movements. Today’s protests “inherit a sense of civic and social responsibility,” but she said they exhibit “a refusal to be so concerned with respectability, or conventional ideas of who should be at the front of leadership.” She said she considers the shift inspiring – and hopes future generations carry on that legacy.
WQXR evening host Terrance McKnight introduced a range of spoken word and musical performers, including opera tenor Chauncey Packer. At times, the performers brought the audience members to their feet in applause.
The conversations were curated as part of the celebration’s theme, “MLK: Blueprint for the Culture.”
“The teachings of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are in fact a blueprint – an enduring portrait – of where we could go, where we should go as a society,” said LaFontaine Oliver, the new president and CEO of New York Public Radio, which includes WNYC, WQKR and Gothamist.
“It is our responsibility in the media to be the drafting table on which blueprints can be built and the open forum where neighbors, experts, community leaders can come together and weigh in on the sketches, the plans, and those inevitable revisions.”
Another highlight of the afternoon was the Apollo itself, the career launching pad for canonical Black artists ranging from Ella Fitzgerald and Sammy Davis Jr. to Lauryn Hill.
Harlem Chamber Players musicians said the Apollo is one of the rare places where they receive audience interaction throughout their songs. On Sunday, audience members clapped along during their set of African American spirituals, including a selection from George Walker’s String Quartet No. 1, a song that violinist Claire Chan says is particularly heartfelt and emotional to perform. Usually their audiences are more restrained, she said.
“You have people, they’re with you, and they’re listening,” Chain said. “It’s great.”
“Quite frankly, it’s lovely to play here for a mostly Black audience,” said Ashley Horne, principal violinist. “For the music that we do, that isn’t usually the case.”
He added: “For me, that’s always a very special thing: to play for my people.”
For 11-year-old Laylah Gauch, a dancer with the Harlem School of the Arts, the performance in honor of King was also special – and not just because King is a historic figure in the Civil Rights movement.
“His skin color was darker, and I'm dark skinned,” said Gauch. “And it made me feel like I was close to him.”