More than 200 Harlem community members joined with Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine students and faculty to commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Sept. 20, the day the civil rights hero survived an assassination attempt at Blumstein’s Department Store on 125th Street in Harlem. The former department store is the current location of TouroCOM and Touro College of Pharmacy.
Entitled “When Harlem Saved Dr. King,” the event was sponsored by The Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, Touro College, NYC Health+Hospitals/Harlem, the National Action Network, One Hundred Black Men, the NAACP and the New Heritage Theatre Group.
At Blumstein’s, Dr. King was signing his first book, “Stride Toward Freedom,” when he was stabbed with a letter opener. Dr. King was taken to Harlem Hospital, where doctors removed the letter opener and saved his life.
TouroCOM Harlem Dean Dr. David Forstein opened the event by noting the many civil rights triumphs Dr. King went on to accomplish in the next decade before he was assassinated, including the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He recounted that the building sat vacant until 11 years ago, when TouroCOM opened with a mission to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in medicine, as well as serving the Harlem community. “Nearly 30 percent of this year’s entering class of medical students are from minority backgrounds,” stated Forstein.
He added, “This building went from being a site of near tragedy and urban decay, to a renewed site of education and scholarship with a strong focus on bettering the lives of the community we serve. As we commemorate this important event in the life of Dr. King, I can’t help but think he would be proud of what the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Touro College of Pharmacy, along with their community advisory boards, bring to Harlem.”
Notable politicians, community leaders and senior Touro College and University System officials spoke about the importance of honoring Dr. King, his character and the relevance of his mission today.
Letter from Dr. King’s son read aloud
Michael Hardy, executive vice president and general counsel of the National Action Network, read aloud a letter from Martin Luther King Jr.’s eldest son for the event.
“Even as he sat in Blumstein’s Department Store with the letter opener still in his chest, dad expressed his distress over his attacker’s mental condition, rather than his own mortal wound,” Hardy read. “In saving Dr. King, Harlem Hospital saved a son, a husband, a father, a brother and a dream. That dream is what helped to transform Blumstein’s Department Store into a medical school that today is educating students to become doctors, measured by the content of their character and their ability, not by the color of their skin. Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine has produced over 130 physicians of color who, by and large, chose to work in primary care and family practice to serve working class and communities of color in this country. Some of those doctors may one day be at Harlem Hospital to save other lives.”
In his invocation, Touro College Executive Vice President Rabbi Moshe Krupka recalled Dr. King’s dedication to peace and solidarity. “In an ever-increasing age of polarization, let us remember Dr. King’s call for unity,” said Rabbi Krupka. “King said, ‘Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.’ He taught us the importance of joining together as a community—where each member feels for the others success and welfare as if it were his or her own.”
Touro College President Dr. Alan Kadish spoke further about Dr. King’s impact on the world. “It’s a tremendous honor and privilege to be here today helping to celebrate the legacy of the only American to have a national holiday named after him,” said Kadish. “It is a tribute to what he accomplished for our country and this community. We are very proud at Touro to be part of the Harlem community and to be commemorating the life of a truly great hero. What happened 60 years ago once again emphasizes how important it is for every member of our society to have access to high-quality health care. We have to continue to support Harlem Hospital and Metropolitan Hospital so that when the next Dr. King is around, he or she can be saved.”
Dr. Hazel Dukes, president of NAACP New York State Conference and a founding member of TouroCOM’s advisory board, spoke of Dr. King and her own relationship with TouroCOM. “Think about what this building meant to Harlem and what it means to us now,” she said. “The reality that TouroCOM imparts is that there is still hope; that there is still a place for you. That we’re still calling out that there is a better way of life.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton recounted the story of another Harlem luminary, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., whose fight to integrate Harlem Hospital created the integrated team that treated Dr. King successfully.
“It wasn’t until the 1930s that they would allow Black doctors to work in Harlem hospitals,” said Sharpton. “Adam Clayton Powell’s first crusade at the Coordinating Committee for Employment and as pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church, was a coalition that led to five Black doctors in the ’30s being the first Black doctors to do their work and perform their skills in Harlem Hospital. Had it not been for that movement and Adam Clayton Powell, there would not have been an integrated group of surgeons to save Dr. King some dozen years later.”
Sharpton concluded his speech by thanking Touro. “We should support the Touros that open new horizons for us because they may be the ones that spare us what Dr. King suffered that day,” he said.
Also present at the occasion were Michael Garner, president of 100 Black Men, who spoke, and Geoffrey Eaton, president of the NAACP Mid-Manhattan Branch and another founding member of TouroCOM’s advisory board. Others in attendance included Lloyd Williams, president of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce and honorary co-chair of the event; Ebone Carrington, CEO NYC Health and Hospitals/Harlem; New York State Assemblyman Al Taylor; Democratic District Leader William Allen; Jackie Rowe-Adams, founder of Harlem Mothers Save; C. Virginia Fields, president and CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, Inc.; Touro College Graduate Division Provost Patricia Salkin; TouroCOM Executive Dean Dr. Kenneth Steier; Touro College of Pharmacy Dean Dr. Henry Cohen; and representatives from the mayor’s and the governor’s offices.
Dramatic Re-enactment from 1958 book signing
The program concluded with a dramatic re-enactment of the event at Blumstein’s co-produced by the New Heritage Theatre Group and Shades of Truth Theatre. Actors dressed in costume and makeup from the period lined up to have their books signed by Dr. King, while hidden from the audience offstage the assassination attempt occurred.
Afterward, the audience marched behind a banner that read “The Day Harlem Saved Dr. King,” from TouroCOM to Harlem Hospital at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue for the second part of the program. There, more speeches were delivered and the actors re-enacted the saving of Dr. King’s life.
In attendance at Harlem Hospital was Ron Naclerio, son of Dr. Emil Naclerio, a surgeon who was part of Dr. King’s surgical team. In a letter dated January 6, 1959, Dr. King expressed his gratitude to Dr. Naclerio, writing “Your skilled surgery, coupled with your genuine concern for me as a patient, combined to bring me from a very low ebb in my life to blooming health again. Please know that I will remember your gestures of goodwill so long as the cords of memory shall lengthen.”
“I’m glad we had this event,” said OMS I Elisa Hsu, who attended the program. “We want to be a part of the Harlem community.”
“We’re remembering Martin Luther King Jr. as well as the medical personnel that saved him,” said OMS I Adam Halpern. “They were our predecessors.”
Touro is a system of nonprofit institutions of higher and professional education. Touro College was chartered in 1970 primarily to enrich the Jewish heritage, and to serve the larger American and global community. Approximately 19,200 students are currently enrolled in its various schools and divisions. Touro College has 30 campuses and locations in New York, California, Nevada, Berlin, Jerusalem and Moscow. New York Medical College, Touro University California and Touro University Nevada, Touro University Worldwide and its Touro College Los Angeles division, as well as Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Ill. are separately accredited institutions within the Touro College and University System. For further information on Touro College, please visit www.touro.edu/news.