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On August 28, 1963, musician Bob Dylan performed at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A half century later, on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, Tulsa honored the living artist with the official grand opening of the Bob Dylan Center.
Known for creating music that inspires racial and social justice, the 80-year-old artist’s six-decade career spans a legacy of activism through music.
“I was up close when King was giving the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” Bob Dylan once said decades after the historic civil rights event, according to Rolling Stone. “To this day, it still affects me in a profound way.”
At the historic 1963 event, Dylan performed “Only a Pawn in Their Game”.
“In it, he decried the assassination of Medgar Evers, state field secretary for the NAACP, killed in Jackson, Mississippi on June 12, 1963,” said Tulsa historian and author Hannibal Johnson, one of the keynote speakers at the grand opening on Tuesday.
City leaders, historians and artists came together to commemorate the opening of the Bob Dylan Center, which includes over 100,000 artifacts dedicated to Dylan’s life and work.
“Here’s to storytelling, to unfettered creativity, to independent thinking, to all the things that Bob Dylan continues to stand for,” Bob Dylan Center Director Steven Jenkins told the crowd gathered outside. Through the support of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the Center was able to secure Dylan’s archives in 2016.
Bob Dylan Center opens near Greenwood District
Located next to the historic Greenwood District, home to the original Black Wall Street, the Center’s location symbolizes Bob Dylan’s legacy as an artist standing beside marginalized communities.
Musical performances filled the air as well on Tuesday. Youth with Sistema Tulsa performed Dylan’s famous song “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and a trio of Native artists, Agalisiga Mackey, performed Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” sung in Cherokee.
Bringing down the house with a poignant prose, three-time U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo delivered a somber, yet hopeful address about how Bob Dylan’s music inspires generations of social justice advocates.
“In this moment in history, we are witness to unprecedented and illegal moves to destroy democracy to erase equality and undermine human rights based on false premises of sexism, racism, culturalism for greed,” Harjo said. She added that her poem drew inspiration from Dylan’s song, “Tangled Up in Blue.”
“In these tangled times, we need the words of the poet, the singers, the prophets, to move in the direction of vision and truth,” Harjo said.
Ken Levit, executive director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, led a team that helped bring the Center to life. He told the crowd gathered at the grand opening that it marks, for him, a need to grow and learn as a society.
“We learn, we improve, we seek justice,” Levit said.
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum also spoke at the grand opening, highlighting the city’s work to “close a century plus of racial disparities.”
Notably, he failed to include the fact that the City of Tulsa remains a defendant in an ongoing lawsuit that seeks restitution for the destruction and death during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Mayor speaks about closing racial disparities as Tulsa defends its role in 1921 Massacre
On Monday, May 2, a Judge ruled that Greenwood Attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons’ public nuisance lawsuit against the city may move forward to trial, the furthest the three last known living survivors and descendants have ever come to gaining justice and restitution for the destruction of hundreds of businesses, over 1,200 homes, and the killing of upwards of 300 Black men, women and children.
Meanwhile, historian Hannibal Johnson reminded the mayor and the crowd gathered outside the Bob Dylan Center of Tulsa’s racist legacy and the work needed to continue to repair the community.
“In his 2020 song ‘Murder Most Foul,’ Dylan sang ‘take me back to Tulsa, to the scene of the crime,” Johnson says as he explains the rich triumph of Tulsa’s entrepreneurial Greenwood District before a White mob, deputized by the city, burned, bombed, looted, shot and killed hundreds of innocent Black people.
“Together we must face our fears. We must face our future. Today we celebrate a man who counsels and compels us to do just that,” Johnson said.
Despite approaching 81 years old at the end of May, Bob Dylan continues to create music that inspires millions, while elevating the perspectives of those marginalized in society.
“There’s an African proverb about narratives,” Hannibal Johnson said. “Until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero. Dylan gives voice to the lion. Dylan understands our shared humanity that peace comes when every person is afforded equal dignity and respect.”
For more information, visit the Bob Dylan Center’s website.
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