Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have loved his 83rd birthday celebration at the National Action Network (NAN). There was the right mixture of reverence, relevance and political resonance to capture parts of his enormous stature.
Perhaps no moment at the rostrum-just getting there required a GPS in order to negotiate the crowd in the room, particularly the assembly of guests and speakers surrounding the stage area-was received with such applause and reaction as the presentation by the Rev. Michael Walrond Jr., pastor at First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem and Amsterdam News columnist.
Channeling King, Walrond delivered a mini-sermon graced with thoughtful alliteration and easily grasped similes and metaphors. “Dr. King was not a freedom, not a justice theorist,” he explained. “He worked for freedom and justice.”
Walrond said we need a new prophetic vision and to do away with being “imprisoned by old assumptions…we must abandon old rhetoric and have a passion for the possible.”
It would have been beneficial to have Walrond at the beginning of the festivities to spark things, but he may have appeared just when the large number of speakers were getting repetitious, summing the usual themes and topics to invoke King.
Poor Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate; he had the unenviable fate of following Walrond, for which moderator attorney Michael Hardy apologized profusely.
However, de Blasio wisely evoked the one name that might temper things and allow his own persona to shine. “No one is doing more to keep Dr. King’s dream alive than the Rev. Al Sharpton,” he said. “Dr. King’s dream was supposed to be a long dream.”
That long dream and King’s legacy should never be spoken of as “in the past,” said Rep. Jose Serrano. “He is not in the past because his message is as alive and important today as ever.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Chuck Schumer reminded the audience that of all our national holidays, “only one is named after a person,” he said. “We have so much to do to live up to his ideals of social, political and economic justice.”
New York junior Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand cited one of King’s favorite expressions as part of her salute to a man whose vision and voice always came at the right time with the right message. “Only when it’s darkest do we see the stars,” she said, quoting King.
One tiny star among the constellation of brilliant speakers was 12-year-old Victoria Pannell, who heads up the youth contingent at NAN’s New York branch. Using an “I was too busy” rhetorical device to make her points, she said, “I was too busy when Dr. King was killed by James Earl Ray, but now guns kill anybody walking down the streets.”
If one theme tended to monopolize the day, it was gun violence, with more than one speaker focusing on this pressing dilemma, none more passionate than Sharpton and Tamika Mallory, NAN’s executive director.
“We must come together in the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to stop the violence,” Sharpton asserted. This was not a time to hustle Dr. King’s day, to pimp it.
A similar serious admonition was at the core of Mallory’s address, in which she pulled no punches. “If the shootings were going on below 50th Street, a lot more would be done,” she stressed. She also chided community residents who are “ready to show up when a cop shoots one of us but do nothing when one of our own is killed” by another Black or Latino youth.
There were also perfunctory remarks from several notables, including Rep. Charles Rangel, who graciously acknowledged many of those working behind the scenes who never get a chance to express themselves at an occasion such as this.
Former Mayor David Dinkins, like Rangel, arrived at NAN from an earlier speaking engagement and noted that if King were still alive, “he would still be younger than I am.” Dinkins said if there was one thing to remember about this day and King, it is “that his dream has still not been realized.”
Stop and frisk was another topic of grave concern for several speakers and certain members of the audience; Scott Stringer, borough president of Manhattan, provided the opening salvo. More than 700,000 people, most of them young Black or Latino males, were stopped, questioned and frisked last year, Stringer observed. Arrests amounted to 5 percent of those stopped. “We have young people who are losing faith in our system,” he charged.
It was the best of our cultural and political systems that attracted many immigrants to America, particularly after World War II, including Community Board No. 1 chairperson Julie Menin’s mother, who arrived in the United States at 13 from Hungary, narrowly escaping the Nazis’ atrocities thanks to Menin’s grandmother. “She read King for inspiration,” Menin recalled, “and now each year on his birthday, we sit with my three boys and we talk about Dr. King.”
If Menin left the crowd in a calmed mood, Mayor Michael Bloomberg incited them even before he said a word. When he repeatedly said that “crime had gone down,” there were a few hoots from the audience. The outburst was even more vociferous when he mentioned stop and frisk, but he was unruffled and stated gun control and improving education would be his top priorities.
There’s not enough room here to recount all the speeches and comments, and there were some precious ones from Erica Ford on stopping the violence; from Dr. Lenora Fulani, who reminded listeners that “poverty is also violence”; and from City Comptroller John Liu, who announced that without King, “I wouldn’t be standing here today,” he said.
And nor would many of the others, including William Thompson, who declared a mayoral victory in 2014; Hazel Dukes; Keith Wright; Robert Jackson; Kirsten Foy; Jumaane Williams; Letitia James; Adriano Espaillat; Eric Schneiderman, Cyrus Vance; Thomas DiNapoli; and everybody else, except Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was at similar event in Albany.
It was also wonderful to see the contingent of union members, especially those from CWA, who are fighting gallantly to get union representation at Cablevision, as it was on behalf of sanitation workers in Memphis that King gave his last ounce of devotion to struggle for justice and equality.