CNN’s Don Lemon delivers message of perseverance at MLK Holiday Breakfast

UNCF x Don Lemon
Chris Juhn Don Lemon // Photo Credit: Chris Juhn

The United Negro College Fund’s (UNCF) annual MLK Holiday Breakfast kicked off Monday’s annual festivities celebrating the legacy of civil rights activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Don Lemon, host of “CNN Tonight,” delivered the keynote to a just-waking capacity crowd at the Armory. Now in its 29th year, the breakfast event has featured nationally prominent speakers — among others, John Lewis, Harry Belafonte, and Gen. Colin Powell — with a side of music and fundraising for UNCF.

SEE ALSO: UNCF MLK Holiday Celebration [Photos]

The event featured entertainment from the Sounds of Blackness, students from the McPhail Center for Music, and the Minnesota Orchestra Brass Ensemble.

The breakfast also saw a gathering of distinguished guests and community leaders — among them, newly elected Governor Tim Walz and Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter.

With a nod to King’s religious pluralism, Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel led the invocation after General Mills senior counsel Ugo Ukabam called for breakfast to be served. Zimmerman served a cold dish of reality before the food came by simply listing the location and details of mass killings in Black churches, each punctuated with “community shaken.”

“This is America,” said the more sanguine UNCF CEO Dr. Michael Lomax, pointing out the diverse crowd before Lemon took to the podium. Feeling similarly encouraged at the sight of the crowd, early in his keynote remarks Lemon also encouraged everyone to “look around.”

UNCF x Don Lemon
Chris Juhn Don Lemon // Photo Credit: Chris Juhn

The primary theme of Lemon’s speech was “to be yourself,” noting that King fought so that Blacks could just do what they do and be who they are.

His way of celebrating King was by traveling the road King and other civil rights leaders paved and pointing out how that has led to new opportunities like being a Black man anchoring a CNN show for 200 countries. “I’m standing on their shoulders,” said Lemon.

He also shared the story of a discriminatory Louisiana State University professor to emphasize how important it is to support young Blacks in education. “I made it,” said Lemon, tears streaming down his face, gloriously taking a Black victory lap — the rarest and most joyous — to show that Black struggle, though painful and slow, does pay dividends.

Lemon was loose and shooting from the hip throughout his speech, taking a few moments to break down in tears during reflection and others to smirk when talking about shrugging off criticism from the White House.

“This is real,” Lemon said. It’s what we get on CNN every night and what we should expect, he told the crowd.

Lemon also mentioned getting a lot of “guff” for his brand of self.

Getting to be a public figure at all, whether reviled or revered — getting paid well and living in New York City and figuring out the whole media/public person gamut for himself — is still, unfortunately, a Black achievement worth applauding.

Perhaps Blacks getting to do so still requires not being fully Black or fully themselves before achieving job security.

But Lemon has that now. And he has turned his Civil Rights Movement-era paved opportunity for success and years of irritating Blacks into a powerful platform from which he can openly denounce racism while periodically picking a mini ‘fro.

And that kind of career isn’t won without hard work for anyone, let alone a Black person who typically has to be twice as good as just “anyone.” Lemon spoke of “sunup to sundown” and, sometimes, “sunup to sunup”days working and going to school — long days he still experiences today as a journalist.

“Sometimes, I barely have the strength to take off my clothes when I finally get home and crawl into bed,” said Lemon. “But I think about Dr. King…about the people who placed a premium on education. I think about the talented tenth, and all those people who came before me, who worked, got their degrees, who worked hard, even in the face of so much adversity.”