In a new artwork by Turner Prize winning artist, Jeremy Deller, passers by happen upon poignant speech recitations 50 years after the civil rights activist’s visit to Newcastle.
“…It may be true that the law cannot change the heart – but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can restrain him from lynching me…”
Extract from Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s degree acceptance speech, Newcastle University, 13 November 1967
Bakers, barbers, yoga teachers, students and school children are just some of the people who have taken time out from their usual routine today to recite an extract from the speech made by Dr Martin Luther King Jr in Newcastle exactly 50 years ago.
On 13 November 1967, Newcastle University awarded Martin Luther King Jr an honorary degree, the only UK university to do so in his lifetime. On accepting this award, King made a speech in which he called for us to join him in the ongoing struggle against war, poverty and racism. This was to be his final public speech outside of the US before his assassination.
Commissioned as part of the year-long Freedom City 2017 programme and produced by Wunderbar, these unannounced recitations included barbers, radio phone-ins, train platforms, shopping centres, banks, bridges, schools, fast food joints and hospitals.
King was the most influential civil rights activist in history and the speech has incredible poignancy in today’s climate. Participants stepped out of their usual role for moments to recite before handing out cards acknowledging the speech context to listeners.
Ilana Mitchell, Artistic Director for Wunderbar said: “To make this project happen, we’ve met so many people: food bank volunteers, university professors, politicians, school pupils, business leaders, hairdressers, asylum seekers, doctors. People of different sexes, different races, different ages, different abilities. And the most striking thing for me is that pretty much across the board it’s been them telling us why this project is so important, not the other way around.”
“It’s been inspiring to recognise the willingness to speak about difficult issues, and to speak out against racism. In these challenging times, it’s a real testament to the city to hear Martin Luther King’s words so powerfully echoed by the voices of its residents.”
Vikki Leaney, senior festival and events manager at NewcastleGateshead Initiative, added: “Exactly 50 years on from Dr King’s impassioned speech at Newcastle University we are still feeling the effects of the three ‘urgent and great problems’ of war, poverty and racism, that he spoke of, in our societies today. These issues continue to impact on all of us, no matter of age, sex or race.
“The city-wide cultural programme for Freedom City 2017 explores the impact of the civil rights movement and the life of Dr King through art, theatre, music, photography and more. Through projects such as #MLK1967 and the involvement of internationally renowned artists, such as Jeremy Deller, we want to inspire people to tackle the issues of war, poverty and racism.”