Sitting before more than 1,300 people gathered to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy Monday, Representative Ayanna Pressley decried the contention that identity politics is “ruining this country.”
“No, it isn’t. It is hate and white supremacy that is codified through legislation,” Pressley said toward the end of an impassioned speech, adding that identity is not confined to race but includes experience. “The solution is representation. And there is nothing wrong with identity.”
Pressley’s comments, greeted by a standing ovation at a panel discussion at the 50th annual MLK Memorial Breakfast, also led to the day’s most awkward moment when Governor Charlie Baker, while agreeing with Pressley, jokingly lamented that his place on the stage meant he had to follow her and “that rant.”
The phrase quickly sparked muttering through the crowd and a social media rapping from Julia Mejia, the City Council’s first Afro-Latina member, and Attorney General Maura Healey, among others.
“We must be unapologetic about uplifting the strength in our struggle,” Mejia wrote on Twitter.
“It was thoughtful, personal, and anything but a rant,” Healey tweeted. “Language like that is dismissive and perpetuates the very harm we seek to end.”
Lizzy Guyton, a Baker spokeswoman, said the governor reached out to Pressley after the breakfast to apologize for using the word “rant,” and emphasized that he supported the thrust of her remarks. Aides to Pressley confirmed Baker had apologized but declined further comment.
“The governor agreed with Congresswoman Pressley’s remarks today and believes her speech was moving,” Guyton said.
After the “rant” comment, Baker quickly added that Pressley’s comments on inclusivity — “that every life is individual and every life should be celebrated,” he said — were “absolutely, so spot on.”
“You can’t make policy, you can’t make decisions, you can’t build anything close to a beloved community — if you don’t have the voices and the experiences that cut across all of your communities involved in that conversation,” Baker said, drawing applause. “Period. Flat out. The end.”
Pressley’s comments, delivered amid a panel discussion at the breakfast, quickly became a centerpiece of the discussion inside the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center ballroom among her, Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Baker, and Senator Edward J. Markey.
The 25-minute discussion — moderated by Edmund Barry Gaither, the director of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists — centered on broad questions of restoring social and economic justice and addressing what Gaither called generational concerns wrapped in “new language,” such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.
It allowed each speaker wide latitude in describing what they’ve done, or believe should be done.
Walsh said his administration is “looking at changing the systemic racism that exists within city government.” Baker touted his regular meetings with the Legislation’s Black & Latino Caucus and its help in shaping his administration’s policies.
Markey, who is facing a challenge from Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III in September’s primary, said the country needs to “have a conversation about reparations,” a concept of making amends for the harm inflicted by the US government on slaves and their descendents. Markey said it should also include those jailed under toughened sentencing measures in the country’s “war on drugs” during the 1980s.
“It’s time for us to have a national debate on this,” Markey said.
But it was Pressley, the only person of color on the panel, who most often commanded the room’s praise and attention. Appearing without a wig days after publicly revealing her alopecia diagnosis, she said she’s been “robbed” of her hair, adding, “Black women have been robbed of things for a long time.”
Seated between Walsh and Baker, Pressley celebrated the diversity of her Seventh Congressional District — the state’s only majority-minority seat — and dismissed the notion that the “best policies are informed by data.” People of color, she told the crowd, are the ones often crowded at the bottom of those data sets.
“Then you want me to be an apologist for saying that I am fighting for the economic empowerment and advancement and preservation of black folk?” she said. “Speaker [of the House Nancy] Pelosi says that she’s in Congress for the children, the children, the children.
“Do any of you say, ‘What about the adults?’ No,” she said, with many in the crowd echoing her. “Only women and people of color are asked to be apologists for fighting for their very preservation.”
The crowd’s response underpinned Pressley’s rapid rise through Massachusetts politics, from Boston city councilor to Capitol Hill, unseating a 20-year congressman in the fall of 2018. In her year in office, she’s publicly sparred with President Trump and has emerged as a face of the Democratic Party’s emerging progressive wing.
Keying off the FBI’s designation of “black identity extremists,” a term that first appeared in a 2017 report and has repeatedly resurfaced to criticism in Capitol Hill hearings, Pressley on Monday embraced the label: “Yes, I am an extremist — about loving my people.”
And she lamented the suggestion that the country’s civil rights movement ended decades ago, either with King or Representative John Lewis helping lead the 1965 march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.
“One of the things that frustrates me when we talk about the civil rights movement is . . . we bookend as if we’re not still in it,” Pressley said. “The same is true, when we talk of abolition. I’m still an abolitionist. Because my people still are not free.”
Matt Stout can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.