In front of a sell-out crowd at Boston's 50th annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast, Rep. Ayanna Pressley told the crowd King's struggles for civil rights are far from over.
“I’m still an abolitionist, because my people still are not free,” she said. “And I mean that in every way, not only because of the new Jim Crow and mass incarceration, but because we don’t have economic justice.”
Just days after unveiling her struggle with alopecia, a wig-less Pressley spoke of the work still to be done. She noted that in her congressional district, black residents are at the bottom of nearly every social and economic indicator, and she feels no need to apologize for standing up for them.
“Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi says that she is in Congress for, ‘the children, the children, the children,'" Pressley said. "Do any of you say, ‘What about the adults?’ No. Only women and people of color are asked to be apologists for fighting for their very preservation.”
Gov. Charlie Baker followed Pressley, and lamented having to speak after her crowd-inspiring comments — referring to them as, "that rant."
Some in attendance chalked Baker's comment up to a gaffe or an attempt at humor. Others called the “rant” comment a micro-aggression, or a kind of Freudian slip.
“I think he should have an opportunity to explain what he meant by the word rant,” said Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo. “But it was certainly a misstep and an inappropriate usage, to me, of what she had so eloquently stated.”
Other state officials, including Attorney General Maura Healey, called the comment "dismissive and perpetuates the very harm we seek to end."
In a statement, Baker's communications director Lizzy Guyton said Baker reached out to Pressley after the breakfast to apologize for using the word. Guyton said Baker agreed with Pressley's remarks and found her speech moving.
During the breakfast, Baker went on to praise Pressley’s remarks as "spot on.”
"You can’t make policy,” Baker said, "you can’t make decisions, you can’t build anything close to a beloved community if you don’t have the voices and the experiences across all the communities that need to be involved in that conversation.”
As she was leaving the breakfast, Pressley told WBUR she didn’t agree with the “rant” characterization.
“It was just impassioned remarks about racial disparities that persist in our county," she said. "It was a mini-TED Talk, but the most important thing is that I was telling the truth.”
The breakfast's keynote speaker, Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church, invoked King via Thomas Jefferson. He acknowledged the hypocrisy of Jefferson — a slaveowner who fathered children with one of his slaves, who also wrote the Declaration of Independence.
"He may have been wrong, but the words were right,” Curry said. “’We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
“Human equality, human dignity, is not conferred by Congress,” Curry added, “it is decreed by the Lord God Almighty.”
This article was originally published on January 20, 2020.
This segment aired on January 20, 2020.