For the past 31 Martin Luther King Jr. Days, Crispus Attucks has hosted an annual breakfast to honor the civil rights leader’s memory together with stakeholders in the community.
I attended my very first of these breakfasts in 2018. I was invited by a woman I hadn’t met yet but would soon come to admire and work for during her run up to the midterm elections — one Jess King, who, at the time, was still gearing up for a hotly-contested primary in what was the 16th district. We showed up accidentally matching in dandelion-yellow blazers and hit it off immediately. In hindsight, it was only fitting that we met on a day America sets celebrates and reflects on a man whose mission was justice for the impoverished and economic equality for working-class folks of all backgrounds and careers.
I remember big hugs with old friends, warm handshakes with new friends, rousing speakers, emotional gospel songs from McCaskey’s choir, and a deep and thoughtful message from Marc Lamont Hill. Still a year later, I recall his call for unity and cooperation among black folks, his piercing criticisms of American education, and his bowdlerized rendition of “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar…a version that after scrubbing out all the swear words left really only four words or so.
I was invited for the 2019 breakfast by my childhood neighborhood Jim Hagelgans of the law firm Hagelgans and Veronis and was eager, despite the freezing temperatures and early start time, to hear from the new lineup of speakers.
I was not only wildly disappointed, but deeply offended by what this year’s breakfast held. We deserve better than what we received, as well as an apology from a speaker who disparaged our Black community on a holiday meant to celebrate one of our greatest leaders.
Crispus Attucks chose John Hope Bryant as the 2019 keynote speaker, presumably because of his connections with Fulton Financial’s E. Philip Wenger, who sits on the board. Bryant’s extensive bio culminated in his founding a program designed to help black people repair their credit so that Fulton or other institutions can then write them home loans.
Besides the fact that his wholly unprepared speech never landed a point despite its 52-minute run time, Bryant spoke disparagingly of Black men and allowed attendees to laugh at inaccurate and inappropriate observations of the Black experience and struggle. Bryant made a mockery of what could have been a rousing speech about the necessity for Black employment, homeownership, and financial freedom. Rather than make a case for supporting Black businesses and pressuring legislators to hold financial institutions accountable, Bryant used his pulpit to make cringy jokes about Black people’s names, lack of capital, and even facial features.
As Bryant meandered between stories of his proposal and “crowd work” on par with that a college improv troupe, he found his way into “socialism is evil” territory — unsurprising for a banker, truly. “Do you wake up every day and send your kids to government-funded daycare?” he asked the crowd rhetorically — but the answer is that yes, many Lancastrians do send their children to government-funded childcare, either with vouchers that subsidize pre-K or mandatory enrollment in public schools. And lest we forget: Dr. King died a socialist.
Perhaps his worst and most unforgivable gaff occurred in the middle of a non-sequitur “racism is stupid” tangent, during which Bryant went bodily feature by bodily feature to explain why folks with ancestry closer to the equator have wide noses, kinky hair, and dark skin — a diatribe profoundly unnecessary for the room. In trying to make a point about race as a biological evolutionary necessity (a point which had no bearing at all on the topic of economic equality, with which he was tasked to speak), he described how hair texture and skin tone changes as ancestry gets further from the equator. Amateur hour stuff.
When his tour reached Italy, where, apparently, men “pinch women’s butts,” Bryant remarked to the crowd, “If you see a guy grabbing a girl’s butt, you know that’s a brotha.” And paused for a laugh.
Sir, sexual assault is not inherent to black manhood, and I defy you to defend your statement in good faith. As a guest in our city, whose name you failed to pronounce correctly even once, you disparaged black men and made them a laughing stock. And for what? A few chuckles from some white attendees who had permission to find humor in generalizing black men as incorrigible sexual predators? Really?
At that point, I tuned out entirely and discounted the remainder of his remarks. Crispus Attucks brought in a speaker to talk about Dr. King’s indefatigable work towards economic justice. Instead, we got down-right insulted and mocked by someone we assumed to be one of our own.