“What if Martin Luther King hadn’t been invited to his birthday party?” This is how renowned author, and actress, Anna Deavere Smith opened her “Race in America” keynote speech at the MLK Legacy Celebration on Feb. 7. Celebrated for her use of theater to explore issues of community and diversity, Smith examined Martin Luther King’s legacy through the lens of personal experience and performance art. Besides using the occasion to memorialize the civil rights hero, she also touched on the importance of King’s legacy in an increasingly polarized political climate, along with the continued forms of discrimination that continue to impact the African-American community today.
Half a century after King’s death, his reputation lives on, but the danger of his accomplishments being erased is imminent. Smith recounted a story of a friend mispronouncing “MLK Boulevard” as “Milk Boulevard” to highlight gaps in modern knowledge and reminded us that King was once considered a communist and a radical by the FBI, who conducted surveillance on him and even sent him threatening letters. “I think we sometimes forget how radical he was,” Smith said. “Radical hospitality and radical love.” She painted a picture of King as a different type of extremist. One who used empathy and equality. “Was not Jesus an extremist?” is how Smith believes King justified his actions to those who criticized his method of peaceful resistance. King understood segregation was morally wrong, and he sought to counteract acts of violence with acts of love.
Throughout her speech, Smith attempted to deconstruct King as a legendary figure and
remove some of the danger that he will become prematurely mythologized. As members of
King’s generation begins to die, there is fear that the impact of the Civil Rights movement will be censored and consigned to history. It’s easy to forget that the segregation. King battled so hard against, was alive and well in our parents’ and grandparents’ lifetimes and that millions of people alive today suffered under the same system.
Smith, who was born in 1950, attended public school in Baltimore only shortly after integration. She recalls some of her own childhood experiences with racism, including a memory of her mother confronting a doctor after he refused to give Smith a polio shot, telling him, “This is not right.” The experience gave Smith a “consciousness of hurt” that she felt she “had to respond to in some way” through her art. She also addressed the continuing effects of institutionalized racism in the classroom and in society.
Smith’s years as an educator exposed her to the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, which she condemned as being “about poverty, it’s about the kids that no one cares about.” Additionally, she acknowledged the disparity between King’s version of an equal society and the world as it exists today. Although we have made great strides since King’s death, his message remains increasingly relevant during Trump’s presidency, during which, police brutality and the rise of white supremacy continues to haunt the headlines.
Smith has been recognized for her brand of theater that blends performance art, personal history, and social issues, and her speech felt more like a performance than a traditional address. She led the audience in singing “Amazing Grace” and read aloud part of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a poignant reminder that King was imprisoned for his demonstrations. This contributed to an emotional atmosphere that was enhanced by the winners of Wheaton’s MLK Legacy Contest, reading aloud from their work. Throughout the speech, however, Smith repeatedly drew the focus back to King, reminding her audience that it was not how he was labeled by others, but by how he classified his actions. “It’s about what kind of extremists we will be,” said Smith. “Are we extremists for hate or for love?”