Practically every aspect of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—his dignity, optimism, determination, ministry, courage, sermons, admonitions, guidance, dedication, hope and even his literary prowess—was invoked by a number of elected officials and activists Monday at the National Action Network.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, president of NAN, set the tone for the celebration of King’s birthday—he would have been 88—by noting the four things he stressed during his “We Will Not Be Moved” rally in the nation’s capital Saturday.
“We will not be moved,” he began, as if speaking directly to the incoming Trump administration, “on economic justice, criminal justice reform, health care and voting rights.” These things, he declared, were nonnegotiable.
Speaker after speaker agreed and then took turns acknowledging portions of King’s legacy and what needs to be done to ensure it and his accomplishments.
“Dr. King’s day makes you think deeply,” Mayor Bill de Blasio began, “and if he was here I’m sure he would tell us not to cower, not to be fearful or disempowered.” After quoting King’s famous phrase about how the ultimate measure of a person is where they stand in times of challenge and controversy, de Blasio recited from 2 Corinthians: “We are pressed on all sides, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”
During his brief moment at the podium, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, while honoring King’s birthday, focused his remarks on current affairs, particularly the need for criminal justice reform in the city. “We have raised the minimum wage … and the Bronx was where President Obama launched his My Brother’s Keepers initiative; now we need to reform the criminal justice system in New York City.”
Public Advocate Letitia James said, “We are in the midst of a storm … and bitter winds of change.” The reference to the impending new administration was not missed by the packed audience. She then called for justice for Eric Garner before borrowing a phrase or two from King’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1964 when he said, “We shall overcome … this faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future.”
“No procurement, no peace!” was the chant from City Comptroller Scott Stringer, and he was joined at the podium by Sharpton, who gave him the permission to play off his cry of “No justice, no peace!” Stringer then said that if King were alive he would say, “Stop agonizing and start organizing.”
“Dr. King never stopped fighting for what he believed in,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and she charged listeners to carry out the same commitment. “We must stand up and fight back,” she said, obviously against the apparent dangers proposed by the Trump administration.
Rep. Adriano Espaillat, who goes to Congress in the seat held for 46 years by Congressman Rangel, said, “I stand with John Lewis,” making it clear how he felt about the recent sharp exchanges between Lewis and Trump. “Trump’s attack is as serious as a heart attack,” he added. He then cited Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and the need to “keep the faith.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer was equally supportive of Lewis during his comments, stating, “We have your back,” and he said that the Democrats are totally united against the repeal of Obamacare. After citing several of King’s attributes, Schumer observed that along with his sermons, King was a very good writer, and for proof of that he read from the icon’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Resistance was the word State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman used to characterize King and his fight for freedom and justice. “He was an aggressive nonviolent activist who refused to yield to oppression,” he said. “He was stabbed and jailed 14 times.” And with King no longer among us, he said “we must agitate and advocate” in the tradition of King.
A similar charge to organize and to advocate for civil rights was announced by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. “Resistance has to be built and sustained,” she said. “In the spirit of Dr. King we must recommit ourselves and stand up for what is right.”
Tom Rutledge, chairman and CEO of Charter Communications, which is partnering with NAN to open a learning lab at the House of Justice, said that King had inspired him with his fight for equal rights and against discrimination. “And we have to find a way to institutionalize his commitment to diversity,” he said, and his company, as Sharpton said, has made a decisive step in that direction with the prospect of 20,000 jobs in the community.
“I grew up in the Amsterdam Houses,” said Democratic Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the first African-American woman to hold the position. She explained that without the sacrifices of King she would not be standing where she was. “Dr. King fought so we could exercise our rights,” she exclaimed, “and we should never lose hope.”
Independent Democratic Conference Leader in the state Senate Jeff Klein said, “We can’t sit on the sideline because the elections did not turn out the way we wanted.” He cited his activist credentials, indicating being arrested for civil disobedience and going to jail with Sharpton. “We can reach the mountaintop together,” he concluded.
“I am part of the resistance in Washington,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, declaring her allegiance with Rep. Lewis and her opposition to the Trump administration. She praised Sharpton and compared his ministry and activism to King’s.
King, said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, “took the pulpit to the streets, and we need more voices than ever.” Action against injustice, she said, would be the best way to honor King.
State Sen. Jesse Hamilton, chair of the Banking Committee, dwelled on a number of important economic factors with an emphasis on the “need to fight for our children.”
His words anticipated the sermon-like speech delivered by Assemblyman Michael Blake, who said, “We must be doers of the word; justice requires you not sit by the sideline. You need to be dedicated to the word.” He received one of the few standing ovations for his spirited comments.
“Peace Week is still alive,” said activist Erica Ford, founder and CEO of Life Camp. She praised the commitment of other activists in the community such as Iesha Sekou for their tireless work against gun violence, an issue that was part of King’s agenda. Even so, she reminded the audience, “We must talk about our own disunity.”
Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, said she was in high school when King was killed in 1968, “and his assassination brought me into the movement.” And that commitment was given additional impetus after her son’s death from a chokehold by a police officer on Staten Island. “We must fight back and this has to start in our neighborhoods,” she said.
“We must fight the power,” roared Athena Moore, one of the several candidates running to replace Inez Dickens in the City Council in District #9. “And women have to be at the forefront of this movement.”
Vocalist Michael Knight closed out the event with a smooth but heartfelt rendition of “Let Freedom Ring,” and given the recollections and the resurrection of King’s legacy, freedom had truly rung with conviction and a promise to carry on his fight for civil and human rights.
Given the length of the program, some elected officials such as Sen. Kevin Parker and Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez had to leave and didn’t speak.