Nationally prominent political strategist and commentator Dr. Angela Rye wasn’t worried about making her audience uncomfortable during her powerful headlining speech at Illinois State University’s annual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Rye spoke at length the evening of January 24 about the progress that still needs to be made in the United States and how the legendary civil rights activist’s legacy continues to be misrepresented.

“He said once, America ‘be true to what you said on paper.’ And today, nearly 52 years after his assassination, America is still walking boldly in hypocrisy.”

Rye went on: “I talk about the romanticizing of Martin Luther King because this is a time of the year where people who have never studied an ounce of black history—their favorite black person in history is Martin Luther King because all they can do is take his quotes out of context. We talk about his “I Have a Dream” speech and we leave out parts on the front end, the back end, and everything in the middle. We talk about—especially some of my colleagues on the other side of the (political) aisle. It’s not meant to be divisive. If truth is divisive for you, this is going to be very painful. I suggest you make an early exit.”

Rye had no reason to worry about the audience’s reception. Throughout her speech, the 735 attendees who packed the Brown Ballroom in the Bone Student Center for the Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Dinner, answered her statements with affirmation and applause.

This was the third and largest of University Housing Services’ cultural dinners this school year. Last fall, barrier-breaking transgender swimmer Schuyler Bailar headlined the LGBTQA Cultural Dinner, and award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien delivered the keynote speech at the Latino Cultural Dinner. This latest event was co-sponsored by the Office of the President, ISU Student Chapter of NAACP, and Association of Residence Halls.

Angela Rye had kind words for Illinois President Larry Dietz and his wife, Marline, during her speech.

Angela Rye had kind words for Illinois State President Larry Dietz and his wife, Marlene, during her speech.

Dr. Larry Dietz, Illinois State’s president, helped introduce Rye. “The Martin Luther King Jr. Dinner is a very, very important part of Illinois State University’s yearlong speaker series, and over the past several years, we’ve brought you world-renowned talents such as Danny Glover, Felix Justice, Van Jones, Soledad O’Brien, Michelle Alexander, Martin Luther King III, and the list goes on. And tonight’s speaker certainly fits well into this group of distinguished speakers.”

Rye is principal and CEO of the political advocacy firm IMPACT Strategies. She is a political commentator for CNN and provides analysis for NPR. She earned a Juris Doctorate from the Seattle University School of Law and served as the executive director and general counsel to the Congressional Black Caucus for the 112th Congress.

Rye spoke for a little over an hour and answered questions from the audience. She said the night wasn’t about herself but was a celebration of an American hero. She talked about how she was named after political activist Angela Davis and how activism has long been a part of her and her family’s life.

She mentioned how it’s often claimed that the United States is the greatest country in the world. She noted, however, the lack of progress for African Americans, the inequality and theft of Native American land upon which the country was founded, and other ugly periods of the country’s history such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the Jim Crow South.

“We live in the greatest country in the world, right? But our kids are now being trained in what to do when they go to school and there may be a shooter. We live in the greatest country in the world, right? But the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen. We live in the greatest country in the world. But one where we can’t even have civil discourse, because you can’t come to the full knowledge of the truth.”

Rye also touched on police brutality, the national anthem controversy, voter suppression, and white privilege.

“Being able to acknowledge white privilege is a first step in the right direction,” Rye said. “Because acknowledgment is what it will take to get to action.”

Angela Rye standing next to Andrew Purnell

Angela Rye praised Illinois State alumnus Andrew Purnell’s effective leadership style during her opening comments. Purnell ’57, who helped found the Black Colleagues Association and the student chapter of the NAACP, will receive an honorary doctorate of humane letters during the Founding Celebration.

Rye said progress would not be possible without honest conversations and an acknowledgment by all of America about uncomfortable truths.

“It is imperative that when we honor Dr. King we’re not just honoring hollow promises and empty words and quotes taken out of context,” Rye said. “We have to honor him with our actions. That is a movement that is about equity. That is a movement that is about shifting the paradigm to ensure that people who are descendants of slaves now can fully participate. You’re not giving anyone a handout or a hand up. We already did that when we built this country for free.”