Rita Moreno Recalls Seeing MLK Jr.'s 1963 'I Have a Dream' Speech with Harry Belafonte: 'I Was There'

"I was there to hear the preacher's dream," Rita Moreno said during her acceptance speech for the Stanley Kramer Award at Saturday's 33rd Producers Guild of America Awards

Rita Moreno and Martin Luther King Jr.
Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty; Bettmann/Getty

Rita Moreno looked to an important piece of history while accepting the Stanley Kramer Award at Saturday's 33rd Producers Guild of America Awards.

The Academy Award winner, 90, recounted watching Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington, to which she was invited by Harry Belafonte.

"I am not a person of religious faith, but for me, film has often been a sacred text that has spurred me to follow what [Abraham Lincoln] called, the better angels of our nature," she began her acceptance speech.

"In 1963, as I sat on Abraham Lincoln's steps, only a few feet from Dr. King. I was there. I was there," Moreno recalled. "I heard his best friend who was sitting next to him, Mahalia Jackson, cry out to him — this is the truth — 'Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream.' Because he had started a different speech and she wanted people to hear about the dream. And thanks to an invitation from Harry Belafonte, I was there to hear the preacher's dream."

The Stanley Kramer Award "honors a production, producer, or other individuals whose achievement or contribution illuminates and raises public awareness of important social issues," according to the PGA.

The civil rights leader Martin Luther King (C) waves to supporters 28 August 1963 on the Mall in Washington DC (Washington Monument in background) during the "March on Washington". - King said the march was "the greatest demonstration of freedom in the history of the United States." Martin Luther King was assassinated on 04 April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. James Earl Ray confessed to shooting King and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. King's killing sent shock waves through American society at the time, and is still regarded as a landmark event in recent US history.
AFP via Getty

EGOT-recipient Moreno famously became the first Latina actress to win an Oscar, having been named Best Supporting Actress for 1961's West Side Story.

The actress used Saturday's speech to recognize the filmmakers who "keep on preaching and never stop advocating for matters of equity and justice," including Kramer himself.

"It is so meaningful to me and so gratifying to receive this extraordinary recognition and to be associated with his legacy," she said. "I am 90 now and working for a lifetime in this business has taken tenacity and hard work. Advocating for issues of social justice, for the last 60 years, it's been exhausting, exhilarating, and life-giving. Had it not been for those steps and the fire set inside me as a young woman, I certainly would not be here tonight receiving this wondrous honor."

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"And let me add that working alongside Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner in the production of West Side Story, telling the immigrant story. The immigrant story. That integrity, fleshing out of characters and respecting ethnicities put logs on this fire that was inside me," the One Day at a Time actress continued.

"We are in the throes of yet another awards season and some in our tribe have been known to use a spotlight to advocate for issues addressed in their nominated works. Climate change, universal healthcare, voting rights, and LGBTQ advocacy and many, many others. And I know that for some in the audience, and that in some audiences, has been known to create, how shall I say? A mild discomfort. For others, heart palpitations," she said. "After all, who do these actors, these Hollywood types think they are? Citizens in a democracy? Well, f— them."

RELATED VIDEO: West Side Story's Ariana DeBose Reveals Rita Moreno Gave Her Advice in Portraying Anita

"Freedom of speech belongs to all of us. Actors, and let's not forget, comedians are patriots, too. Just look in the direction of Mr. [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy in Ukraine. I am honored, again. I thank you and I promise that I'll be more charming on another occasion," Moreno concluded.

Moreno was full of life, dancing her way onto the stage as Jessica Chastain presented her with the award, recounting their memorable first encounter. "I've been obsessed with you, Rita, and your accomplishments. Rita does what Rita feels," Chastain, 44, said.

"I think it was about a decade ago, you reminded me that the first time we met, you yelled across a crowded restaurant at me, 'I love your breasts!'" she explained to laughter from the audience. "That's a true story, everybody. So Rita, I love your breast too. You're a role model to those who follow in your footsteps. You've been a guiding light in an industry that at times can seem quite dark. And I just want to say how much I love your breasts tonight — I mean, your dress."

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