Usually when we think of Martin Luther King, Jr., we picture him in the South in places like Birmingham and Montgomery, speaking out against the segregationist laws there. We don’t normally picture him up north, although segregation and discrimination were also a fact of life for people of color in the northern states. Partly because the problem was nationwide and partly because the city was the go-to place to raise funds to support the cause, Martin Luther King, Jr. actually made several trips to New York City over the course of his life. And for him, like for everyone else, his NYC experiences ranged from idyllic to horrific. So without further ado, let’s explore the connections between MLK and NYC!
1. MLK once got shanked with a letter opener in Harlem.
Talk about New York hospitality: in 1958, King was in town to promote his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, which chronicled his experiences leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott. While King was signing books at the Blumstein’s Department Store in Harlem, a deranged woman came up to his table and plunged a letter opener into his chest. King was rushed to Harlem Hospital, where he narrowly avoided death. As the legend now goes, the letter opener was so close to King’s aorta that one false move —even a sneeze— would have caused him to fatally bleed out. After such a harrowing experience, I wouldn’t have blamed King if he never returned to the Big Apple, but he made dozens of subsequent trips here.
2. MLK gave his most controversial speech in NYC.
Curator Sarah J. Seidman from the Museum of the City of New York, which held a “King in New York” exhibit in 2018, theorizes that because of the city’s bend towards liberalism and even radicalism, King felt comfortable sharing his more controversial viewpoints here. Most famously, on April 4, 1967, King gave his contentious “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church in Morningside Heights, in which he spoke out against the Vietnam War on the grounds of it being a “cruel manipulation of the poor” both in the US and Vietnam. King was lambasted by the press and politicians for this speech, and it probably didn’t help that he then led a 125,000-person anti-war march to the United Nations a few days later. Some interpret the Beyond Vietnam speech as the event that sealed King’s tragic fate.
Riverside Church and the United Nations Plaza aren’t the only places where King gave speeches in NYC. He gave speeches at City Hall, Hunter College, City College, Columbia University, St. John the Divine Cathedral, Plymouth Church, and the Park Sheraton Hotel, among other places. You know those “George Washington slept here” jokes? I’m surprised there isn’t the equivalent “MLK spoke here” gag.
3. MLK was named an honorary New Yorker.
1964 was a big year for awards for Matin Luther King, Jr.; not only did he receive the Nobel Peace Prize, but he also was bestowed the City of New York’s Medallion of Honor, the city’s highest civilian honor. In the packed City Hall ceremony, Mayor Robert Wagner, Jr. told King how much New Yorkers admired him and his pursuit of civil rights, “This is not your city of residence, Dr. King, but it is your city nevertheless. We claim you, henceforth, as an honorary New Yorker.” I hope that made up for the shanking six years prior.
4. There were major riots everywhere but New York City the night MLK died.
But that wasn’t because New Yorkers weren’t upset. New Yorkers, especially in Harlem, had every intention to raise hell when they learned of MLK’s assassination. But that outrage quelled slightly when Mayor John Lindsay personally went out to Harlem to express his remorse for the death of the civil rights hero. Despite Lindsay’s words, there were still some instances of violence, but it was nowhere near the level of anger and destruction seen in other 37(!) other cities like Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, DC. Note: while Lindsay’s presence in the streets of Harlem is the most cited reason for the lack of rioting in NYC following King’s assassination, it’s not a very convincing one.
5. A New Yorker led the charge to create a national holiday to honor MLK.
On the third Monday of every January, as you remember Dr. King’s impact on the Civil Rights Movement, give some gratitude to Howard Bennett, the Harlem community leader who worked to make this holiday possible. Immediately following King’s funeral in 1968, Bennett and other organizers decided that King needed to be honored with a national holiday. Within two years, Bennett’s National Citizens Committee for a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday had gathered six million signatures from people who also supported the idea. But because of intense opposition, it took thirteen more years before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day became a reality in 1983. Unfortunately, Bennett, having passed away in 1981, wasn’t around to see his work pay off, but there is a playground on West 136th Street in Harlem that bears his name.
Any other connections between MLK and NYC that you know of? Share it in the comment section.
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