The 53rd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast returned Monday to its first in-person event since the pandemic, with local and federal leaders invoking the civil rights leader’s words to underscore the importance of belonging as well as education.
“We know what it feels like to be told that our stories, our bodies, our love, and, indeed, our life do not belong,” said the Reverend Dr. Jay Williams of Union United Methodist Church, cochair of the committee behind the event. “You belong and you matter. And we are glad that you are here.”
Globe Opinion Columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr hosted the ceremony, held at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center and titled “Reclaiming Our Rights: Education and Activism.” Several officials attended, including Governor Maura Healey, Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll, Senator Ed Markey, Representative Ayanna Pressley, and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. New Yorker staff writer and dean of the Columbia Journalism School, Jelani Cobb, was the keynote speaker.
In her remarks, Healey referred to what King described as “life’s most persistent and urgent question”: What are you doing for others?
“The question is simple, but it was at the core of his life’s work: fundamentally to recognize the dignity and the worth and potential of every single person, to lift that up, to acknowledge it, to support it,” Healey said. “And that’s what we must do together as a community.”
Healey also said that it’s of utmost importance to her that every young person can be their best selves.
“It’s just not that easy because there are real barriers and hurdles in their way — barriers and hurdles that have existed for generations — but I am committed to doing everything I can to change that,” Healey said.
Healey said her administration will conduct “an equity assessment that’s going to look at every single state agency” to see who they are not reaching. The goal, she said, is to find the root of these “systemic barriers” and find what’s needed to close them.
Wu, in her welcome remarks, took aim at growing movements of “hate, abuse, extremism, and white supremacy” that she said are fueled by conspiracy theories and misinformation taking root at every level. She recalled this day a year ago, when “right-wing protesters” showed up outside her house for the third week in a row.
“If we are to hold true to Dr. King’s sentiment that we need education to cut to the core of what we are fighting for — the truth — that means that we have to stand back and call out how we see the truth today,” Wu said.
Many of the speakers echoed the importance of education, especially in shaping young people. In a panel conversation with local leaders and educators, Pressley said teachers should be allowed to do their job, without needing to serve as a social worker, psychotherapist, or nurse.
“I don’t want to romanticize resilience [so] that our teachers are dipping into their own pocket to resource their classroom or to feed their students, and then we lift them up and say how extraordinary this is,” Pressley said to thunderous applause. “That is a moral outrage, that is nothing that we should be celebrating.”
Across Greater Boston, the breakfast was one of many celebrations and invocations of King’s lasting legacy.
On Monday, protesters planned to march in the snow from Boston to the place in Cambridge where a police officer fatally shot 20-year-old Sayed Faisal earlier this month. And on Friday, a 22-foot-high bronze sculpture called “The Embrace” was unveiled in Boston Common as a memorial to King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, depicting four arms embracing each other.
At the breakfast, Cobb cautioned that if King were here today, he’d be impressed by the diversity but also critical of our progress, especially with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He would tell us to look around the nation and see with clear eyes what the pandemic laid plain for the world to see,” said Cobb. “We saw who was in line of the virus, who could not get out of the way of the virus. We saw who populated the emergency rooms; we saw who died at double and triple the numbers.”
Cobb described that when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King said that people often mistook the song “We Shall Overcome,” which had become an anthem for the civil rights movement, as directed toward the movement’s antagonists, but it wasn’t — it was a mantra.
“They were asserting their ability to transcend the difficulties of that moment, toward a broader and brighter future,” Cobb said. “If we have the resolve, that we can make good on Dr. King’s mantra and say that we shall, indeed, overcome.”
Markey said, “As we commemorate Dr. King today, let us not forget that he was a radical, a socialist, a disruptor, and an enemy of the status quo.
“He pushed the establishment, and he did not stop, so let us embrace the young people, the activists, and the creators, and the troublemakers, who are pushing us all forward.”