Oscars: A Look Back at the African-American Winners

10:10 PM 2/27/2016

by Hilary Lewis

With zero nonwhite actors nominated for Oscars for the second year in a row, The Hollywood Reporter highlights the 32 black actors, musicians, writers, producers, sound mixers and other artists who have taken home gold.

Halle Berry and Denzel Washington in 2002
Halle Berry and Denzel Washington in 2002
Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect

The Oscars faced criticism again this year after zero nonwhite performers were nominated in the acting categories for the second year in a row. But over its past 87 ceremonies, the Academy Awards have honored a number of nonwhite actors, directors, musicians, writers, producers and sound mixers, including more than 30 African-American artists.

In 2002, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry famously became the first black actors to win both lead acting awards in the same year, incidentally the same night that Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win an Oscar, received an honorary award. Washington's Oscar was his second, also winning best supporting actor in 1990 for his role in Glory.

The only African-American to take home multiple acting Oscars, Washington joins Willie D. Burton and Russell Williams as the only black men to win more than one Academy Award. In honor of the increased focus on diversity surrounding this year's Oscars, The Hollywood Reporter looks back at the awards' black winners.

  • Hattie McDaniel

    1940

    The first black person to win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel, had to accept her 1940 best supporting actress trophy in a segregated hotel. Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick had to call in a special favor to have McDaniel, who played head slave Mammy in the Civil War epic, allowed into the no-blacks Ambassador Hotel, where the 12th Academy Awards was taking place. McDaniel beat out her Gone With the Wind costar Olivia de Havilland as well as Geraldine Fitzgerald (Wuthering Heights), Edna May Oliver (Drums Along the Mohawk) and Maria Ouspenskaya (Love Affair). During her tearful speech, the daughter of two former slaves indicated she hoped her prize would have lasting significance. "I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry," she said.
     

  • Sidney Poitier

    1964

    Courtesy of The Oscars/YouTube

    Sidney Poitier became the first black man to win an Oscar with his best actor award for Lilies of the Field. Poitier beat out Albert Finney (Tom Jones), Richard Harris (This Sporting Life), Rex Harrison (Cleopatra) and Paul Newman (Hud). Accepting his award from Anne Bancroft at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Poitier stated "it is a long journey to this moment," thanking Ralph Nelson, James Poe, William Barrett, Martin Baum and the Academy.

  • Isaac Hayes

    1972

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    Isaac Hayes became the third African-American Oscar winner and first in the non-acting categories when he took home the best original song award for his "Theme From Shaft." Hayes' Shaft theme beat "The Age of Not Believing" (Bedknobs and Broomsticks), "All His Children" (Sometimes a Great Notion), "Bless The Beasts & Children" (Bless the Beasts & Children) and "Life Is What You Make It" (Kotch). Hayes had performed his song on a smoke-filled stage, wearing shades and a gold chainmail vest surrounded by dancers in Afros and white bell-bottoms. The son of a Tennessee sharecropper family brought his grandmother Rushia Wade, who mostly raised him, to the Oscars with him and thanked her "most of all" in his speech. "Years ago her prayers kept my feet, the path of righteousness ... And this is a thrill for me. And also, a few days her eightieth birthday, and this is her present from me." Speaking of his win, daughter Heather Hayes told The Hollywood Reporter that "Being able to take [his grandmother] to the Oscars and win was life-changing for him. It meant anything is possible in this life."
     

  • Louis Gossett, Jr.

    1983

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    The first African-American to win the best supporting actor Oscar took home the award for his role as Gunnery Sgt Emil Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman. He beat Charles Durning (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), John Lithgow (The World According to Garp), James Mason (The Verdict) and Robert Preston (Victor/Victoria). After accepting the statuette from presenters Susan Sarandon and Christopher Reeve, Gossett referenced some key people in his life, saying he tried to get his child to join him onstage and joking about his 17 year relationship with his agent Ed Bondy. "They say marriages don't last," Gossett quipped. He also said he was sharing the award with the other four nominees, holding up the Oscar and proclaiming, "this is ours."

  • Irene Cara

    1984

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    What a feeling, indeed! Irene Cara won the best original song Oscar for "Flashdance…What a Feeling" from Flashdance, sharing the award with Giorgio Moroder and Keith Forsey. The composition beat out fellow Flashdance track "Maniac," "Over You" from Tender Mercies and two songs from Yentl, "Papa, Can You Hear Me?" and "The Way He Makes Me Feel."

  • Prince

    1985

    Courtesy of The Oscars/YouTube

    Prince won the last Oscar for best original song score and was the first black winner of the category that was put on hiatus afterwards. The actor-singer-songwriter won for his Purple Rain soundtrack, beating Jeff Moss' The Muppets Take Manhattan score and Kris Kristofferson's Songwriter score. Prince was accompanied onstage by his Revolution bandmates Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin in what THR, at the time, called "an unusually subdued appearance" by the "flamboyant singer." Still, Prince called his win "very unbelievable. I could've never imagined this in my wildest dreams."
     

  • Stevie Wonder

    1985

    Courtesy of The Oscars/YouTube

    Stevie Wonder won best original song for "I Just Called To Say I Love You" from The Woman in Red, beating out Phil Collins' "Against All Odds" from the film of the same name, Ray Parker Jr's "Ghostbusters," from the film of the same name and two Footloose songs, the title track and "Let's Hear It For The Boy." Wonder seemed in disbelief as he accepted the award, recalling how the moment was a real manifestation of his dreams. "All through Europe I had dreams—and I would always wake up—that I was at an awards show and the nominees were coming up, and they'd say this song and this song, and the winner is...! And I would wake up," Wonder said. "But I never thought that this would happen."

  • Lionel Richie

    1986

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    Lionel Richie called his best original song win for "Say You, Say Me" from White Nights, "Outrageous." The song beat "Miss Celie's Blues (Sister)" from The Color Purple, which Richie also helped write; "The Power of Love" from Back to the Future; "Surprise, Surprise" from A Chorus Line and another White Nights song, "Separate Lives," the "love theme" from the movie.

    "In the truest sense of the word I will say to you that this represents a dream come true," Richie said after winning. "Many, many years of believing and dreaming and a lot of friends and a lot of family that said, 'You can do it, just keep on trying hard.' I want to say to all of them and to all the people that have supported me over the years, thank you very much for keeping up with my foolishness."

  • Herbie Hancock

    1987

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    The first black winner for best original score, Herbie Hancock, won for his work on 'Round Midnight. He beat the scores for Aliens (James Horner), Hoosiers (Jerry Goldsmith), The Mission (Ennio Morricone) and Leonard Rosenman (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home). Accepting the award from Bette Midler, Hancock indicated that perhaps preparing a speech ahead of time, as he was asked to do, but hadn't done before, was good luck. And he paid tribute to the jazz greats that paved the way for him. "In accepting this award I salute the same unsung heroes that you so boldly have chosen to applaud," he said. "Some are with us today and some are not. Many have suffered and even died for this music, this greatest of all expression of the creative spirit of humankind—jazz. From their suffering and pain we can learn that life is the subject, the story that music so eloquently speaks of, and it is not the other way around. We as individuals must develop our lives to the fullest, to strengthen and deepen the story that others can be inspired by life's song…Praise has been long overdue for Bud Powell, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and many, many others. Along with you, I thank them. Along with them, I thank you."

  • Willie D. Burton

    1989 and 2007

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    Willie D. Burton became first black person to win best sound in 1989. In 2007, he won again, for best sound mixing. He won his first Oscar, after receiving his fourth nomination, for his work on Bird, alongside Les Fresholtz, Dick Alexander and Vern Poore. The Bird sound team beat those who worked on the sound for Die Hard, Gorillas in the Mist, Mississippi Burning and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

    In 2007, he joined Michael Minkler and Bob Beemer in accepting the sound mixing prize for their work on Dreamgirls. They beat the sound mixing nominees from Apocalypto, Blood Diamond, Flags of Our Fathers and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.

  • Denzel Washington

    1990 and 2002

    Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect

    Denzel Washington is the only African-American to take home multiple acting Oscars, winning in 1990 for his supporting role as Pvt. Trip in Glory and in 2002 for his lead role in Training Day — a landmark night for Oscar diversity, with Halle Berry also winning the best actress prize for her work in Monster's Ball.

    In 1990, Washington beat out Danny Aiello (Do the Right Thing), Dan Aykroyd (Driving Miss Daisy), Marlon Brando (A Dry White Season) and Martin Landau (Crimes and Misdemeanors). Accepting his award from Geena Davis at the Oscars' longtime home of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Washington seemed relieved he was able to use the notes he'd prepared and that his son, who said he was going to make him an Oscar out of clay, now has the real thing to work off of.

    "Now I got the model for him," Washington said. He also paid tribute to the black Civil War soldiers that the film portrays, saying they "helped make this country free."

    During his 2002 speech, Washington seemed overcome by the significance of his win, which also occurred the same night Poitier received an honorary award and made him the second African-American to win best actor, following in Poitier's footsteps nearly 40 years later. That year Washington beat out Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind), Sean Penn (I Am Sam), Will Smith (Ali) and Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom).

    After accepting his award from presenter Julia Roberts, Washington began his remarks with "Two birds in one night, huh?"

    "Forty years I've been chasing Sidney [Poitier], they finally give it to me, what'd they do? They give it to him the same night," Washington continued. "I'll always be chasing you, Sidney. I'll always be following in your footsteps. There's nothing I would rather do, sir. Nothing I would rather do. God bless you. God bless you."

  • Russell Williams II

    1990 and 1991

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    Russell Williams is the first black person to win multiple Oscars in any category. Williams took home back-to-back best sound Oscars as part of the teams that worked on Glory and Dances With Wolves. In 1990, Williams, Donald O. Mitchell, Gregg C. Rudloff and Elliot Tyson beat the sound teams from The Abyss, Black Rain, Born on the Fourth of July and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

    In 1991, Williams, Jeffrey Perkins, Bill W. Benton and Greg Watkins beat the sound teams from Days of Thunder, Dick Tracy, The Hunt for Red October and Total Recall.

  • Whoopi Goldberg

    1991

    Barry King/WireImage

    The actress and future Oscar host won her first Oscar on her second nomination. Taking home the best supporting actress prize for her role as Oda Mae Brown in Ghost, Goldberg accepted her award from Denzel Washington at the Shrine Auditorium. She beat out Annette Bening (The Grifters), Lorraine Bracco (Good Fellas), Diane Ladd (Wild at Heart) and Mary McDonnell (Dances With Wolves).

    In her speech, Goldberg talked about how her win was a childhood dream come true.

    "Ever since I was a little kid I wanted this," she said. "You don't know. My brother's sittin' there, he says, "Thank God we don't have to listen to any more. You can do it now." My mom's home, everybody's watching." She went on to thank those who were involved in selecting her to play Oda Mae, including Jerry Zucker and Patrick Swayze.

"I want to thank everybody who makes movies," she added. "I come from New York. As a little kid I lived in the projects, and you're the people I watched. You're the people wanted — made me want to be an actor. I'm so proud to be here. I'm proud to be an actor and I'm gonna keep on acting. And thank you so much."

  • Cuba Gooding Jr

    1997

    Courtesy of Photofest

    The Jerry Maguire star, who won for his role as Rod Tidwell, delivered an enthusiastic acceptance speech after he won the best supporting actor Oscar. Gooding beat out William H. Macy (Fargo), Armin Mueller Stahl (Shine), Edward Norton (Primal Fear) and James Woods (Ghosts of Mississippi) for the prize and quickly thanked several people, including his wife, Cameron Crowe, Tom Cruise, James L. Brooks, Regina King and "Everybody involved with the movie!" Gooding proclaimed "I love you!" several times and jumped around onstage towards the end of his speech.

  • Halle Berry

    2002

    SGranitz/WireImage

    The same night as Washington and Poitier's honors, Halle Berry won best actress for her role as Leticia Musgrove in Monster's Ball, marking the first time two black performers won the lead acting Oscars in the same year and becoming the first and, as of 2016, only black actress to win the Oscar for best actress. Berry delivered an emotional speech as she clutched her Oscar, after beating out fellow nominees Judi Dench (Iris), Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge), Sissy Spacek (In the Bedroom) and Renee Zellweger (Bridget Jones's Diary).

    Crying after she accepted her award from Russell Crowe, Berry took note of the significance of her win. "This moment is so much bigger than me," she said. "This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened. Thank you. I'm so honored. I'm so honored. And I thank the Academy for choosing me to be the vessel for which His blessing might flow." Berry thanked her family, her team and the people behind Monster's Ball as well as Spike Lee "for putting me in my very first film and believing in me" and Oprah Winfrey for being "the best role model any girl can have.

  • Jamie Foxx

    2005

    Jamie Foxx
    Jamie Foxx
    Michael Caulfield/WireImage

    Jamie Foxx was singing a happy tune after he won the best actor Oscar for his role as Ray Charles in Ray. The winner performed a little Ray Charles with the audience after he beat out Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda), Johnny Depp (Finding Neverland), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator) and Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby). Foxx name-checked Winfrey and Berry and, like Washington before him, invoked Poitier, whom he said Winfrey allowed him to meet. Mimicking Poitier's voice, Foxx recalled him saying, "I saw you once. And I looked in your eyes and there was a connection … I give to you responsibility."

    As himself, Foxx continued: "So I'm taking that responsibility tonight. And thank you, Sidney." He also paid tribute to his late grandmother, whom he called his "first acting teacher."

    "She still talks to me now; only now she talks to me in my dreams," Foxx said. "And I can't wait to go to sleep tonight because we got a lot to talk about."

  • Morgan Freeman

    2005

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    Morgan Freeman won his first Oscar after receiving his fourth nomination. The veteran actor won the best supporting actor prize for his role as Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris in Million Dollar Baby, beating out Alan Alda (The Aviator), Thomas Haden Church (Sideways), Jamie Foxx (Collateral) and Clive Owen (Closer). Accepting the statuette from Renee Zellweger, Freeman thanked "everybody and anybody who ever had anything at all to do with the making of this picture," including director Clint Eastwood and co-star Hilary Swank. "This was a labor of love," Freeman added.

  • Three 6 Mafia

    2006

    SGranitz/WireImage

    Three 6 Mafia had the Oscar audience abuzz when the rappers won the best original song award for their Hustle & Flow composition "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." The trio of Jordan "Juicy J" Houston, Cedric "Frayser Boy" Coleman and Paul "DJ Paul" Beauregard beat "In The Deep" from Crash and "Travelin' Thru" from Transamerica.

    Speaking to THR, DJ Paul revealed the rappers were certain they wouldn't win even though they eagerly attended and performed on the Oscars. "My lawyer wrote out a piece of paper with the names of all the people we were supposed to thank if we won: Craig Brewer, the director. John Singleton, the producer. Sony Records. This person, that person," DJ Paul recalled. "We balled it up and threw it away. We were like, 'Man, we don't need this paper. We're not going to win. F— that paper!'"

    But the boys from Memphis, Tenn. did win. "We went crazy. We turned around and started running and jumping." After they accepted the award from Queen Latifah, the band members, accompanied by Hustle & Flow actress Taraji P. Henson in her pre-Empire days, improvised an acceptance speech that included shout-outs to Memphis, Sony Records, their family members, the Academy and George Clooney, whom Paul called "my favorite man, he showed me love when I first met him."

    "Why Clooney? Because when you go to the Oscar luncheon, you can't sit with the people you come with. They split us all up, and I ended up sitting with Clooney. I was a huge fan. I got all these tattoos because of him in From Dusk Till Dawn," Paul told THR.
     

  • Forest Whitaker

    2007

    Getty Images

    Whitaker won the best actor prize in 2007 for his role as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, beating Leonardo DiCaprio (Blood Diamond), Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson), Peter O'Toole (Venus) and Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness). Accepting his award from Reese Witherspoon, Whitaker seemed overwhelmed by the moment and how far he'd come.

    He took a few seconds to compose himself before talking about how his win was a dream come true.

    "When I was a kid, the only way that I saw movies was from the backseat of my family's car at the drive-in, and it wasn't my reality to think I would be acting in movies," Whitaker said. "So receiving this honor tonight tells me that it's possible, it is possible for a kid from east Texas, raised in South Central L.A., in Carson, who believes in his dreams, commits himself to them with his heart, to touch them and to have them happen. Because when I first started acting, it was because of my desire to connect to everyone, to that thing inside each of us, that light that I believe exists in all of us. Because acting for me is about believing in that connection; and it's a connection so strong, it's a connection so deep that we feel it and through our combined belief we can create a new reality."

    He ended by thanking God, saying that He's "given me this moment in this lifetime that I will hopefully carry to the end of my lifetime into the next lifetime."

  • Jennifer Hudson

    2007

    Michael Caulfield/WireImage

    At just 25, former American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson won the best supporting actress Oscar for her debut film role as Effie White in Dreamgirls. Hudson beat out Cate Blanchett (Notes on a Scandal), Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) and two Babel castmembers, Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi. Hudson also seemed overwhelmed by the honor, remarking after she accepted the statuette from presenter George Clooney, "I cannot believe this. Look what God can do…I didn't think I was going to win but, wow."

    Hudson also paid tribute to her grandmother, wishing she had been there to see her win and saying, "She was my biggest inspiration for everything because she was a singer, and she had the passion for it but she never had the chance, and that was the thing that pushed me forward to continue." The grateful star thanked director Bill Condon and the film's cast as well as her Broadway predecessor Jennifer Holliday.

  • Geoffrey Fletcher

    2010

    Dan MacMedan/WireImage

    Geoffrey Fletcher became the Oscars' first black adapted screenplay winner, winning for Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. His screenplay beat the ones from District 9, An Education, In the Loop and Up in the Air. Fletcher seemed a bit at a loss for words when he accepted the award from presenters Jake Gyllenhaal and Rachel McAdams, but said of his win, "This is for everybody who works on a dream every day. Precious boys and girls everywhere."

  • Mo'Nique

    2010

    Steve Granitz/WireImage

    The Precious actress beat out Penelope Cruz (Nine), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart) and two Up in the Air actresses, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, when she won best supporting actress, accepting the trophy from presenter Robin Williams. During her speech, Mo'Nique paid tribute to McDaniel, thanking her "for enduring all that she had to so that I would not have to."

  • Roger Ross Williams

    2010

    Ethan Miller/WireImage

    Roger Ross Williams became the first black director to win the Oscar for best documentary short subject for Music by Prudence, sharing the award with Elinor Burkett. Music by Prudence beat China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province, The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner, The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant and Rabbit a la Berlin.

  • T.J. Martin

    2012

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    Director T.J. Miller became the first black documentary feature winner for his film Undefeated, sharing the award with Dan Lindsay and Rich Middlemas. Undefeated beat fellow documentary nominees Hell and Back Again, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory and Pina. Miller dropped an f-bomb during his speech, that he quickly apologized for, as he acknowledged the other nominees in the category, which he said, "have inspired us in so many ways" and it would be "f—ing wonderful" if they all joined them onstage.

  • Octavia Spencer

    2012

    Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage

    Spencer called her Oscar "the hottest guy in the room" after she accepted the statuette from Christian Bale at the 2012 ceremony. Winning best supporting actress for her role as Minny Jackson in The Help, Spencer beat out Berenice Bejo (The Artist), Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids), Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs) and her Help co-star Jessica Chastain. She thanked those involved with making the movie, including then-DreamWorks executives Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider for "changing my life."

  • Steve McQueen

    2014

    Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage

    Twelve Years a Slave director Steve McQueen may have lost the best director award to Gravity's Alfonso Cuaron but he became the first black producer to win best picture when his film won the Oscars' top prize. The film emerged victorious from a packed best picture category that featured American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street.

    McQueen joined fellow producers Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Anthony Katagas in accepting the award, with Pitt quickly turning the microphone over to the director. In his speech, McQueen brought the message of the film's real-life protagonist, Solomon Northup, to the present day, saying "Everyone deserves not just to survive but to live. This is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup. I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery and the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today."

  • Lupita Nyong'o

    2014

    Jason LaVeris/WireImage

    Nyong'o won one of 12 Years a Slave's three Oscars in 2014, taking home the best supporting actress prize for her role as Patsey. Nyong'o beat Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Julia Roberts (August: Osage County) and June Squibb (Nebraska). She began by thanking her character and the real Solomon Northup. "It doesn't escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else's," she said. "And so I want to salute the spirit of "Patsey" for her guidance. And for Solomon, thank you for telling her story and your own." And she ended her speech with a message, "When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you're from your dreams are valid."

  • John Ridley

    2014

    Jason LaVeris/WireImage

    Twelve Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley won one of the film's three awards at the 2014 Oscars, taking home the best adapted screenplay prize for transforming Solomon Northup's story into the acclaimed film. Ridley's work beat the adapted screenplays from Before Midnight, Captain Phillips, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street.

  • Common and John Legend

    2015

    C Flanigan/Getty Images

    During the first year of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, African-American musicians Common and John Legend took home the best original song Oscar for "Glory" from Selma. "Glory" beat "Everything is Awesome" from The Lego Movie, "Grateful" from Beyond the Lights, "I'm Not Gonna Miss You" from Glen Campbell…I'll Be Me and "Lost Stars" from Begin Again. During their speech, Common recalled how the pair had recently performed the song on the same bridge that Martin Luther King and civil-rights activists marched on 50 years ago and talked about the enduring symbolism of that structure.

    Legend, meanwhile, brought the themes of the film into the present day. "Nina Simone said it's an artist's duty to reflect the times in which we live. We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say that Selma is now because the struggle for justice is right now," he said. "We know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850. When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you we are with you, we see you, we love you, and march on. God bless you."

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