On Monday 13 November, every day life was interrupted as Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s words were voiced by the people of Tyneside. In a new artwork by Turner Prize winning artist, Jeremy Deller, passers by happened 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
Alongside workers from all walks of life, participants from New Writing North’s Young Writers’ City project at Excelsior Academy performed extracts from King’s speech around the city as well as in their own school. One of the most prominent pieces in the live art event was a recording of the speech by 15-year old Yuri Neves, which was played across the Tyne and Wear Metro network at intervals throughout the day. Other young people recited extracts from the speech in local shops and supermarkets, to workmen in the street, to their peers in the dinner hall, within classes and to senior level staff at the school. Due to the secret nature of the event, the unannounced recitations drew surprise and confusion across Tyneside.
The event was produced by Wunderbar as part of the year-long Freedom City 2017 programme, marking 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr’s visit to Newcastle.
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.
Anna Disley, Executive Director (Programme & Impact) at New Writing North said, “Young Writers’ City is all about supporting young people to be part of the culture of our city, to make and shape it, to comment on it, to participate in it, and to have their voices heard. The confidence and conviction with which the young people participated in this event is testament to them and to how strongly they feel about issues such as racism, inequality and injustice.”
Craig Taylor, Excelsior Academy Executive Principal, said: “Our pupils took so much from being at the heart of Newcastle’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of Dr King’s speech.
“The opportunity to recite his words in such public places has helped grow their self confidence and learn so much more about the man and his civil rights work.
“The Young Writers City at Excelsior project is a stunning success. The opportunities it gives pupils to discover their own creative talents and share them with people, from the web to the stage at Sage Gateshead, has a hugely positive impact on the young participants and wider school life.”