During his freshman year at Northeastern University, Michael Brown, an assistant professor of journalism at Emerson, looked across the street to see Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to a crowd of civil rights activists under a gazebo, an image still imprinted into his memory. This week, nearly 48 years later, Brown stood, pensive and emotional, in front of a crowd to perform a reading of one of King’s speeches.
Sponsored by Multicultural Student Affairs and in association with EBONI and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the dramatic readings of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s works marked the first event in a week of remembrance of the deceased civil rights leader’s legacy. Twelve speakers — a blend of staff, faculty, students, and community guests — gathered Tuesday, Jan. 21 at noon in the dining hall to recite some of Dr. King’s most notable speeches.
The mix of speakers from different ages and races and the event’s bustling location illustrated an intimacy and community that reflected King’s goals as a leader. The speeches took place over the hum of chatter and were surrounded by constant movement. Students weren’t asked to quiet down, nor did the flow of dining hall traffic cease at any point during the performances. The event was informal yet still culminated in an inspiring homage to King’s accomplishments and nonviolent philosophy.
The first of the readers to step up to the podium was Brown. He, and every speaker thereafter, opened with a small introduction regarding why he chose his particular speech, explaining how the sheer fire behind King’s words inspired him.
“Nowadays, we see people reading off of teleprompters,” Brown said. “But King, you see, he would start off reading from his notes, and halfway through, he wouldn’t cast a single glance back at the sheet. Halfway through, he was preaching. He didn’t need the paper.”
After foreshadowing the increasing intensity of the speech, Brown looked down solemnly at his paper and hesitated to begin, fearing he wouldn’t maintain his composure throughout. Brown read King’s “How Long, Not Long” speech, originally delivered March 25, 1965 on the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery, Ala. after a successful in the march from Selma to Montgomery. Brown livened up his speech with a heated emphasis on King’s repeated phrase “how long, not long,” increasing his emphasis on the words after receiving an approving hum from the crowd.
Several of the following speakers also read speeches including iconic lines by King such as “We shall overcome” and “Our God is marching on, his truth is marching on.” The event showcased speeches varying in year and circumstance, but each one reflected some sort of connection to the speaker and King’s recurring themes of nonviolence, faith, love, and perseverance.
Shanae Burch, a performing arts major from the class of 2013, read King’s commencement address from Lincoln University on June 6, 1961, using talents acquired from her theater background to deliver the speech in a commanding voice interlaced with effective pauses, fluctuating tone, and eye contact with the crowd. With a smile on her face, and dimples framing her words, Burch joined the power of her voice with the power of the words on the paper in a captivating, moving performance. Burch placed clear emphasis on some of King’s boldest lines from the address, saying, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,” exhibiting conviction and speaking skills that reflect Emerson’s emphasis on communications and rhetoric.
Despite at times being muffled by the sounds of socializing and clinking plates in the dining hall, the speakers continued to speak soulfully and dramatically. During the speeches, the rest of the orators sat and ate together at a table, beaming at those behind the podium and offering warm congratulations after their performances. The scene itself was one of acknowledgment, both for King’s work and for each other.