Commemorating MLK at the Apollo Theater

by Sebastian Castro

Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater is partnering with WNYC to host their 18th annual celebration commemorating the life and legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Jan. 14. This year’s event, titled “An Inconvenient King”, aims to subvert typical discourse of King’s work. Brenda Williams-Butts, Chief Diversity Officer of WNYC, co-founded the event alongside Brian Lehrer. She says that the title is intentionally provocative. “We decided to focus on the inconvenient King, not the quotable King. Not the one most people will talk about and give you a bite size. We’re looking at the man. He was a leader, a visionary,” Williams-Butts said. “This is what we do, we bring all kinds of different perspectives: historians, scholars, activists.”

King is often portrayed as a moderate, uncontroversial activist. In truth, his message was and still is radical. He advocated for a fundamental restructuring of a society built on a foundation of white supremacy. “An Inconvenient King” wants to embrace that, understanding that King shouldn’t be whitewashed and taken into the fold of the establishment, but recognized and embraced as the revolutionary that he was.

The event will be hosted by Kai Wright, host of WNYC’s “Notes from America” and Michael Hill, host of WNYC’s “Morning Edition”, with WQXR’s Terrance McKnight as master of ceremonies. The afternoon will feature a mixture of panelist interviews, one-on-one interviews, and, in classic Apollo Theater fashion, musical performances. Mumu Fresh, Grammy nominated singer, songwriter, rapper, and activist, will perform her music and spoken word, as well as participate in conversation with Wright. The audience can look forward to hearing from Jonathan Eig, author of the award-winning King biography King: A Life, Juliet Hooker, Brown University professor and political philosopher, and musical legend Lead Belly’s great nephew, Alvin Singh.

William-Butts emphasized the importance of not only the diversity of voices, but of the location itself. The Apollo Theater has a long and storied history in Harlem, providing a haven for Black performers barred from whites-only venues as far back as 1934. The Apollo’s stage has been home to many stars over the years, including Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Sammy Davis Jr. Given its status as a beacon of culture and hope in the Harlem community, it’s no coincidence that WNYC has been hosting their event at the Apollo for the past 11 years. “The reason we partnered with the Apollo Theater is because we knew how important it is to the community,” Williams-Butts said. “When we think about the Apollo Theater, we think about how that legacy of music and entertainment has influenced not only the black community, but so many communities.”

WNYC is proud to have run the event for so many years, and thinks longevity is part of its significance. This yearly celebration can serve as an inspiration to new generations to pursue justice in their own way. “It allows an avenue of communication and different perspectives to be examined and discussed. Over the 18 years, we looked at relevant topics over the years that have to do with everything from economics to housing, to of course George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” Williams-Butts said. “We’ve opened up a canon, we’ve opened up the discussion, we’ve continued the conversation.”

Williams-Butts hopes that this event moves audience members to action. “When you talk about celebrating Dr. King, but in a way where you’re addressing ongoing societal challenges, it could speak to not only the Harlem community but so many other communities,” Williams-Butts said. “The day that we celebrate him, I always think about action, I always think about what I can do. So I want others to think about what they can do. What are some of the issues that are around you that you can have some effect on, that you can make an impact?”

The event is free with RSVP, is at 2pm Jan. 14 (, and will be live streamed on their YouTube channel (

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