Nikole Hannah-Jones on her speech that jolted Union League Club audience: ‘I can probably never do it again’

Her speech on Martin Luther King Day last week had a surprise ending.

SHARE Nikole Hannah-Jones on her speech that jolted Union League Club audience: ‘I can probably never do it again’

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

Award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones recognized Monday that she probably won’t be able to ever again deploy the same oratorical device she used last week while giving a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech at the Union League Club.

A little background first.

Hannah-Jones is the journalist behind the “1619 Project” — a groundbreaking series of stories published by the New York Times about slavery in America that, in Hannah-Jones’ own words, “de-centers white people as the heroes of the American story.”

Before she spoke at the Union League Club, she faced criticism from a small number of club members that she was a “discredited activist” whose work was not in line with King’s teachings.

While giving the speech, she used King quotes but said them as if the words were her own, only to later jolt her audience with the revelation of their origin. 

On Monday, during a virtual address to faculty and staff at Northwestern University, she talked about the speech.

“What I took to be the challenge when people said I was a discredited activist who defiled the legacy of Dr. King was that most people have never read Dr. King’s words. Most people have no idea who he was, and so I decided I would spend the first half of my speech just reading his speeches like they were mine, and I can probably never do it again because it got a lot more press attention than I thought,” she said.

“But it was such a perfect illustration of how uncomfortable we would be with Dr. King.”

Her King quotes to the Union League Club included: “White Americans must recognize that justice for Black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society...The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and racism.”

Also: “The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Hannah-Jones said she is always fascinated by commemorations of King that feature little of what he stood for or said. 

“We all are conscious of this time of year, you see a litany of conservatives who trot out Dr. King and it’s always that one line from that one speech about being judged by the content of your character not the color of your skin, and it’s not even looking at the rest of that speech,” she said, noting that it was highly critical of American society.

“And the same politicians that are trotting out a really a homogenized version of Dr. King are opposing the policies that he fought for, so they would have you believe that he was not radical. He was a radical actor,” she said.

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