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Elite Club Members Tried To Stop Nikole Hannah-Jones’ MLK Day Speech. So She Schooled Them Using Dr. King’s Words

After Union League Club of Chicago members said it would "dishonor Dr. King" for Hannah-Jones to give a speech, calling her a "discredited activist," she fought back with King's own words.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times Magazine reporter, speaks at City Hall in February 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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DOWNTOWN — A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist swapped her words for those of Martin Luther King Jr. after some members of a long-running Chicago club tried to block her from speaking at the club on MLK Day, calling her a “discredited activist.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times Magazine writer who created “The 1619 Project,” was invited to give a speech at The Union League Club of Chicago for its Monday afternoon celebration commemorating the life of the civil rights icon. 

But ahead of the speech, members of the 142-year old private club group “wrote and leaked emails” protesting her appearance, Hannah-Jones said in a Twitter thread Monday.

Some members said it would “dishonor Dr. King” for Hannah-Jones to give a speech as she was a “discredited activist” and “unworthy of such association with King,” she said.

In response, Hannah-Jones scrapped her prepared speech and read excerpts from several King speeches without telling anyone. Listeners believed King’s words were hers, and she swapped the word “Negro” for “Black” to keep the swap a secret, she said. 

“Oh, the uncomfortable silence as I read Dr. King’s words at a commemoration of Dr. King’s life when people had no idea that these were his words,” Hannah-Jones tweeted. “When I revealed that everything I said to that point was taken from his speeches between ’56 and 67… Can you say SHOOK!”

Hannah-Jones wrote that she left members with a final thought: Whatever your thoughts are about King now most likely reflect how you would have felt about his work in days past. 

“People who oppose today what he stood for back then do not get to be the arbiters of his legacy,” Hannah-Jones said. “The real Dr. King cannot be commodified, homogenized, and white-washed and whatever side you stand on TODAY is the side you would have been back then.”

Father Michael Pfleger, senior pastor at Saint Sabina Church in Auburn Gresham, cheered on Hannah-Jones during the speech and praised her afterward, she said. 

Pfleger whispered, “That’s what you call the ‘You Gone Learn Today’ speech,” Hannah-Jones said.

“This is why the 1619 Project exists,” she tweeted. “This is why the decades of scholarship that undergirds the 1619 Project exists. Because if we do nothing, they will co-opt our history and use it against us.”

Representatives for Hannah-Jones did not immediately return requests for comment Wednesday and Pfleger couldn’t be reached.

“The 1619 Project,” launched in 2019, is an award-winning New York Times Magazine feature that centers slavery in America as the foundation of the nation’s formation, past, present and future. It argues 1619 should be considered the origin of the United States — the year the first enslaved people arrived from Africa — rather than 1776, the year of the country’s independence from Great Britain.

Hannah-Jones won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2020 for “The 1619 Project.” A subsequent book, published in 2021, expands the narrative of the journalistic endeavor with essays and poetry.

John Donnelly, president of Union League Club Chicago, told Block Club only a “handful of members” shared their concerns about Hannah-Jones’ appearance.

Rarely are decisions or actions made by the board favorably accepted by all the league’s members “whether that be a conservative or liberal speaker,” Donnelly said. 

“That does not disparage us from fulfilling our mission of ‘commitment to community and country,'” Donnelly said. “Our membership requires us to hear from all sides. We encourage free speech in a civilized manner with decorum.”

Despite initial pushback, Donnelly said he’s only heard positive feedback from members of the club. 

“… I think her words opened a lot of eyes and ears to recognize the issues that were being fought during the movement in the ’50s and ’60s still exist today,” Donnelly said. “And though they may not be as overt, the need for education on the issues and an understanding of what needs to be done is needed more than ever.”

Going forward, Donnelly said the club intends to book diverse speakers, even if the guests “may upset a few members.”

“We have to be open to hearing all sides,” Donnelly said. “If we are not willing to listen, how can we expect to be heard?”

Hannah-Jones ended her thread with a thought on King, his work and how leaders of both past and present have denied King’s legacy, a contradiction to what most have been taught today. 

“Dr. King was a radical critic of racism, capitalism and militarism,” Hannah-Jones said. “He didn’t die. He was assassinated. And many, including [Reagan], fought the national holiday we’re [now] commemorating. If you haven’t read, in entirety, his speeches, you’ve been miseducated & I hope that you will.”

Hannah-Jones’ run-in with the club members isn’t the first time a historical or institution has attempted to block her work.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill denied Hannah-Jones its Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism following pushback from conservatives about her work on “The 1619 Project.”

Following national backlash, the university relented to offer her the tenured spot. She turned it down, saying she would instead take her work to Howard University in Washington, D.C.

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