Don Lemon, host of “CNN Tonight,” brought the message of “Be yourself” to the 29th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast Monday in downtown Minneapolis, in a speech that detailed his bumpy rise from a child of modest means in the Deep South to worldwide recognition as a TV journalist.
The annual event drew 2,400 of the biggest political, corporate and philanthropic names in the Twin Cities to the Minneapolis Armory on a frigid winter morning.
An emotional Lemon wiped away tears throughout a 30-minute address that began with his childhood growing up on the black side of the tracks in segregated Port Allen, La., just west of Baton Rouge.
From there he went to Louisiana State University, where a professor told him he’d never make it as a journalist, and to Brooklyn College in New York, where he received a degree in broadcast journalism.
Lemon put his own twist on a letter he recently received from a mentor when he summarized his message: “Pioneering is hard. If you are up to the task, be yourself. Signed, me, Don Lemon.”
He has stirred controversy in recent years, calling white men the biggest terror facing the country and criticizing Kanye West’s appearance last fall in the Oval Office on a highly publicized visit with President Donald Trump.
The theme of this year’s MLK Day breakfast was “Doing for others: A call to social action.” Images of King scrolled on a large video screen behind the stage, and there was exuberant music throughout the 90-minute program ranging from “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to a round of “Happy Birthday” for King.
The program closed with a call to action in the form of donations to the United Negro College Fund’s MLK Legacy Scholarship for students of color in Minneapolis. Five scholarships were awarded this year.
Lemon evoked connections to mentors he hadn’t known but had paved his way, including King himself, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Mark Twain. He got a gentle wave of knowing laughter when he talked about the three “family members” whose pictures graced the mantel of his childhood home: King, Jesus and President John F. Kennedy.
He talked of being born in 1966 amid the tumult of the Civil Rights movement and how ultimately King’s message of peaceful nonviolence endured over Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary.”
Early in life, Lemon knew he wanted to be a journalist but his parents pushed him toward following his father into law school. Of journalism, his parents warned, “You’re not going to make any money.” He paused for effect before adding, “Ah-ha.”
As he pursued a journalism career, Lemon said he wanted to be like Bryant Gumbel, the former Today Show host and sports journalist, or former ABC News anchors Peter Jennings and Max Robinson.
Lemon said he realized he had to use his calling to help people, and made a commitment to “Advocate for the truth, advocate for information and advocate for knowledge no matter how difficult.”
“It’s hard to be a journalist right now, but it is the most important time in our history” to be one, he said.
By his bed, he said, he keeps the phone and reads and listens to the speeches of King amid a work schedule that can go 24 hours straight with relentless criticism. Quoting Angelou’s poem, he said: “But still I rise.”
Lemon told of once asking his late colleague Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef and author, why he made a dicey trip into Iran to report on food and culture. He said Bourdain responded: “You cannot be contaminated by knowledge.”
To live a greater life, Lemon said you have to be willing to listen to others and change your mind.
“You have to open your mind. You have to be quiet. You have to listen,” he said.