Westport Country Playhouse was packed to the rafters January 15th as part of our celebration of the life and legacy of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The day was put together in partnership with TEAM Westport, the Playhouse and the Westport/Weston Interfaith Council.
There was gospel music and spoken word performances but the highlight of the event was Keynote Speaker Dr. Tricia Rose, the Brown University Chancellor’s Professor of Africana Studies, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America. Professor Rose is an internationally respected scholar of post-civil rights era black U.S. culture, popular music, social issues, gender, and sexuality.
Dr. Rose first encouraged the audience to ask itself and each other “What Would Martin Do?” as a way to think about current events through the lens of Dr. King’s teaching, action, and writing. Most central to this idea, she said, was to first recalibrate the narrative of Dr. King’s life and work in order to understand fully what he was about.
Referencing the overarching popular narrative of Dr. King as a “dreamer” and the nation’s most famous Civil Rights activist, Dr. Rose reminded the audience in her signature style that the Atlanta minister did not consider the fight over once the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. Instead, he continued to fight for the rights of the marginalized, whosoever they may be.
In what she called Dr. King’s “pivots”, Dr. Rose spoke about his work with as an anti-Vietnam war activist, his work on behalf of unions, and his work addressing unfair housing and the “ghetto-ization” of black communities as a response to major cultural shifts such as the great migration of African Americans to Northern States.
Many of Dr. Rose’s excellent points are also address in this article published on MLK Day in Politico.
Over the course of her talk Dr. Rose also addressed the idea of “color-blindness” as a reinforcement of racism and Dr. King’s approach of finding common ground among people that went beyond race and ethnicity—with respect to low wages and poverty, for example. In fact, as this interesting article in Vox talking about The Poor People’s campaign and this one outlining Dr. King’s fight for economic justice .
Before he was murdered in April of 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. had been planning to bring his Poor People’s Campaign to Washington in a March later that year.
Ultimately, Dr. Rose told the audience we can surmise as to What Would Martin Do? endlessly and, ultimately, it would still be conjecture. We can, however, she pointed out go back to the enormous catalog of his sermons and speeches words for strength and guidance as we work to achieve a more welcoming and just society by doing what is right—not what it is convenient.
For more in-depth analysis of these interesting subjects, we encourage you to read and watch Dr. Rose’s work. Her groundbreaking and award-winning book 1994 on the emergence of hip-hop culture “Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America” which spawned a new field of study in academia is widely available. She is currently working on a project called “How Structural Racism Works” and her YouTube channel offers excellent ongoing insight to her work. Check it out