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Going into her Martin Luther King Jr. holiday speech at the Union League Club this week, “1619 Project” journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones stepped to the podium knowing her words wouldn’t be welcome by at least some club members critical of her famed history project with The New York Times.
In emails circulating online, one member of the storied 143-year-old civics organization had called Hannah-Jones a “discredited activist” who was the wrong choice to speak about King’s legacy, while a second member was generally critical of her involvement in the controversial history project and 2021 book that reexamined the beginnings of the country through the gaze of slavery. Both claimed Hannah-Jones mischaracterized King.
But Hannah-Jones had a plan. She began with a more revolutionary and activist stance on topics such as Black empowerment, white apathy and inaction by moderate whites. Finally about halfway through her speech, she dropped a bombshell: her words were direct quotes from King, stunning her audience of club members and visitors, according to several people who attended the event.
Hannah-Jones recounted the event in a series of tweets following her Monday speech in the club’s Lincoln Room. “I scrapped my original speech and spent the entire first half of it reading excerpts from a bunch of Dr. King’s speeches, but without telling anyone that I was doing so, leading the audience to think King’s words were mine,” she wrote on Jan. 17. “And, whew, chile, it was AMAZING.”
The speech came at a time when there is a renewed spotlight on racial issues and grievances across the country, as elected leaders and citizens bicker over topics including voting rights, the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election and critical race theory.
Recent years have also brought out activists calling out the “whitewashing” of King’s legacy, pointing to politicians who quote King’s words about unity while largely ignoring his more radical stands against structural racism, militarism and capitalism.
Northwestern University history professor Kate Masur said that many observations made by Hannah-Jones in the 1619 Project have been considered and written about by numerous historians. But, as a journalist, Hannah-Jones has brought the ideas further into the public discourse.
That there has been pushback against her is hardly surprising, and, in fact, puts her squarely in the company of King, who himself made many white people uncomfortable, Masur said.
“Most white people would think, of course I would have agreed with him at the time,” said Masur, who teaches and writes about the history of race and politics. “But opinion polling during King’s lifetime showed that many white Americans did not approve of him. Many thought he was moving too fast, was too radical or wasn’t doing it right.”
Masur, who participated in a virtual conversation at Northwestern recently to preview Hannah-Jones’ upcoming speech there next week, pointed to Hannah-Jones’ writing and reporting on education and housing discrimination, before turning to the 1619 Project, as reasons why she is an appropriate person to speak during a King celebration.
“Are they compatible? I feel like there is absolutely no question, but of course,” Masur said. “In this moment, Nikole Hannah-Jones is an important voice in talking about the history of racism in this country.”
‘You could hear a pin drop’
For those who attended the Union League Club event, Hannah-Jones’ decision to confront the contents of the emails only reinforced why she was the right person to honor King, who some say does not always get remembered for how uncomfortable he made white people or for how angry and disappointed he felt about the lack of progress on addressing racism.
“People are listening to these very strong things that she’s saying and you could hear a pin drop in the room,” recalled the Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina, who gave the invocation at the annual event.
“You look on the faces of people who are like ‘Oh my God! She’s saying this and that,’ confronting the liberals (and) moderate whites. Then all of a sudden, she stops halfway through her talk and says ‘Everything I’ve just said are direct quotes from Martin Luther King Jr.’ ”
Some attendees marveled at how Hannah-Jones pulled it off, subtly changing the word “Negro” to “Black” to strip away language from a different era that might have hinted at the real author.
While King has long been the preeminent figure in American civil rights, his public popularity waned in latter part of the 1960s as he voiced opposition to the Vietnam War and entrenched discriminatory policies against Black people in northern cities such as Chicago, where he famously lived in a Lawndale slum and was pelted with rocks and bottles during marches through white neighborhoods in 1966.
Writing on the topic for Essence magazine in 2020, Candice Benbow wrote: “The universal adoration of Dr. King can only be described as a willful decision to mischaracterize his person and work. Detaching Dr. King from his radical, socialist, left-leaning politics is the only way many Americans who now praise him can do so with (what they think is) a clear conscience.”
Pfleger, who was previously spoke at King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, praised Hannah-Jones’ speech, calling it a refreshing truth compared with whitewashed versions of King’s legacy.
“I’m one of these people who is sick and tired of nice little Dr. King breakfasts and luncheons and commemorative services where you listen to Dr. King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech and everybody feels good about themselves and nothing changes and the real King is continued to be lied on and continues to be assassinated,” he said.
State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford, D-Chicago, who attended the speech and took a photo with Hannah-Jones, agreed that the conversation was uncomfortable for some of those in attendance, but called it necessary to “racial healing.”
“I had no idea how she was going to approach it, but I read (the “1619 Project” book) and I knew that the discussion was going to be uncomfortable. It’s going to be uncomfortable not only for descendants of the slave population, but it’s going to be uncomfortable for those who have no slave blood in them.”
The Rev. Randall Blakey, executive pastor at LaSalle Street Church and chairperson for the club’s public affairs subcommittee on race relations, meanwhile, saw a direct correlation with efforts to limit voting rights across the country and the national debate over legislation to stop it.
The criticism among some over Hannah-Jones’ paid appearance began about 10 days before the speech, when emails by two club members surfaced.
The Union League acknowledged the emails in a letter to all members and said the views expressed did not reflect the organization, which, according to its website, was founded as part of a national effort to support the policies of Abraham Lincoln and to “combat pro-slavery secret societies infiltrating Illinois.”
“The board is aware of emails circulating among some of our membership criticizing the inclusion of Nikole Hannah-Jones as a speaker at our Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration scheduled for January 17, 2022,” reads the letter, which was obtained by the Tribune.
“The Board is also aware that at least one media outlet obtained these emails and published an article this past weekend. The article quotes one member who is a voting member of our Public Affairs Committee. His opinions are his own and are not shared by the Public Affairs Committee or Board.”
The letter went onto say the club has invited speakers who draw controversy in the past — and would continue to do so.
“Our diverse membership requires us to hear from all sides. We encourage free speech in a civilized manner with decorum,” the letter reads.
Blakey, who said he selected Hannah-Jones to speak, said he was aware of the emails before they were made public. But he was not concerned because it was just two members expressing the views.
Blakey said he remained “laser-focused” instead on making sure the event achieved what he wanted — a celebration that aligned with and complemented King’s life and legacy.
It worked, he concluded, saying the emails were not a setback for the club.
“The foundation of what Ms. Jones presented the other day was truth,” he said. “And it is simple as that. ... It does put us in a position to move forward ... dealing with the truth that is America. Listening to that truth, embracing it and learning and growing from it. ... We left there strengthened and encouraged and challenged to do better..”