Just after 2 p.m. on Sunday, under the towering neo-gothic ceilings of Harlem’s Riverside Church, a hush fell upon the gathered crowd of the at least 1,000 visitors seated in the nave.
Two actors, clothed in black, stood silently in the central two aisles of the church. As the dimmed lights rose, the pair — one man and one woman — began to walk up the aisles of the church.
“A time comes when silence is betrayal,” the first called out.
“A time comes when silence is betrayal,” the second echoed.
They repeated the line several times before fading out of sight, and into the darkness.
This line — originally delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech — became a powerful refrain on Sunday at Global Citizen’s “Breaking the Silence: Beyond the Dream” event that commemorated and built upon King’s words and legacy.
On Sunday, Global Citizen broke open the silence in a major way with a high-energy, inspiring event at Riverside Church that featured everything from slam poetry and interpretive dance to gospel singing.
Organized and produced by Victoria Fortune, “Breaking the Silence” brought together faith leaders, musicians, and activists to reflect upon King’s legacy. It was the first event as part of a week full of cultural activities in the first-ever Global Citizen Week, leading up to the annual Global Citizen Festival on Sept. 23 in Central Park.
Actor Forest Whitaker followed up this powerful intro with a reading from King’s speech.
“We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls ‘enemy,’ for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers,” Whitaker read from King’s speech.
Host Soledad O’Brien, speaking from the lectern, then drew parallels between King’s speech and what it means to be a Global Citizen — someone who promotes nonviolence, engagement beyond borders, and combating poverty.
“MLK was a luminary and a global citizen,” O’Brien said. “[His] fight was about all of humanity regardless of religious affiliation.”
Riverside Church's Reverend Dr. Amy Butler also spoke of King's legacy, and how his words continue to resonate in 2017.
"Fifty years later, we're still called to confront evils like racism and war and poverty, evils that Dr. King spoke of so eloquently and precisely" Butler said.
Other religious leaders — including Rabbi Dan Ain, Imam Khalid Latif, and Reverend Al Sharpton — echoed this message of interfaith solidarity.
At Riverside Church w/ Soledad O'Brien at the Breaking The Silence: Beyond The Dream Event for the 50th Anniv of the MLK Vietnam Speech pic.twitter.com/N8qe67GMMv— Reverend Al Sharpton (@TheRevAl) September 17, 2017
High-octane performances from the Syncopated Ladies, an entirely white-clad interpretative dance ensemble; Sir the Baptist, whose high energy soul music literally had the crowd on its feet; and the Howard University Gospel Choir infused the event with a raw, raucous energy.
These were artfully paired with more low-key performances from Grammy-nominated classical pianist Joey Alexander, the String Orchestra of Brooklyn, and Jasmin Fancii, who interpreted a speech by former US President Barack Obama on homeless veterans through dance.
Royce Mann, a 14-year-old slam poet, whose original poem, “White Boy Privilege,” went viral in 2016, delivered a passionate new piece, entitled: “Rise Up.”
“Let’s rise up because if we don’t who will?” Mann asked.
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Like all Global Citizen events, the hour-and-a-half long service also included a call to action.
Global Citizens were encouraged to write letters to their congressional representatives urging them to protect the international affairs budget, which the Trump administration has threatened to slash by 30%.
CEO and co-founder Hugh Evans spoke powerfully of the fragility of progress and the need to take action.
“Add your voice to the movement, keep resisting the temptation of apathy,” Evans said. “Let’s harness the energy in this room, and of this great country.”
Before introducing the final, surprise, guest speaker, Ndaba Mandela — grandson of the late Nelson Mandela — event organizer Victoria Fortune also spoke.
“Now more than ever we have to come together and speak out about the injustices plaguing our country,” Fortune said.
Event organizer and Global Citizen Victoria Fortune reminds us that: "Courage and kindness and love are contagious." pic.twitter.com/RFXDEJoaD7— GlobalCitizenImpact (@GlblCtznImpact) September 17, 2017
Mandela concluded the event with a powerful reminder that despite the progress made since King’s time, there remains much work to be done in the fight to end extreme poverty.
“Let us break the chains on HIV/AIDS, let us break the silence on the girls in Africa that miss school because of a lack of sanitary pads, let us break the chains on poverty, ladies and gentlemen, I ask you and I leave you with this, when are you going to break the silence?”
The next Global Citizen Week event will be Global Citizen Live on Monday night, where musician and humanitarian Annie Lenox will be presented with the George Harrison Global Citizen Award.