Martin Luther King, Defender of the “Most Powerless”


Today is day we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States, one of the single individuals to do the most of anyone in advancing the cause of civil rights in our nation during the twentieth century.

It’s worth remembering King’s time in New York — specifically two events, which both relate to our list of “The 100 Most Powerless New Yorkers,” on the cover of this week’s Voice — in considering King’s legacy on the nation and his impact on modern American politics, over four decades after his death.

The first is his (above) speech titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” delivered at Riverside Church one year to the day prior to King’s assassination in Memphis.

In the speech, King came out strongly against the Vietnam War, a stance that was reviled by camps from President Johnson’s White House (who felt that King was betraying them after Johnson had fought with King for the Civil Rights Act of 1964) to many, surprisingly enough, of King’s brothers and sisters from within the trenches of the civil rights movement itself. Even some of King’s close friends thought he was getting off message, and feared the wrath of Johnson.

King obviously knew the power of individuals and groups to affect change through non-violent resistance, and he lived to see some of the power both could harness. Yet when he delivered his speech in 1967, he was not at all starry-eyed about who was wielding the power (political, military and economic) in terms of American policy in southeast Asia, and what would happen to the world if it continued unchecked:

We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

The speech marked the beginning of the last year’s of King’s short life, which would also prove to be one of loneliest and most isolated of his years as a public figure as he embarked on his biggest undertaking since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Though backed by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, many of King’s colleagues had grave misgivings about his desire to start the Poor People’s Campaign, a coalition of poor people of all races to march to Washington — not around the theme of race but around economic injustice — and to build a shanty town in Washington, D.C. (sound familiar?) until an “Economic Bill of Rights” was passed.

The Poor People’s Campaign lost a lot of momentum when King was assassinated, of course, but it did come to fruition briefly, including the shanty town in the nation’s capitol. A May 11, 1968 Associated Press article paints a picture that looks strikingly like a precursor to the one Occupy Wall Street created in Zuccotti Park last year: ”

“In the capital, demonstrators erected a camp called “Resurrection City” on a 16-acre site near the Lincoln Memorial. Reverend Ralph Abernathy, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) successor to the slain Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began the Poor People’s Campaign with the proclamation that ‘the poor are no longer divided. We are not going to let the White man put us down anymore.It’s not white power, and I’ll give you some news, it’s not Black power, either. It’s poor power and we’re going to use it.’

“The Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) was a convergence of racial and economic concerns that brought the poor, including those who were black, white, Indian, and Hispanic to live in shantytowns and demonstrate daily in Washington from May 14 until June 24, 1968. The PPC was conceived by Dr. Martin Luther King, but, unfortunately, Rev King had died just a month earlier and could not lead it.”

The other New York chapter in King’s life worth noting today is when nearly a decade earlier, on September 20, 1958, King was stabbed during a book signing in Harlem.

NBC’s Gabe Pressman recalls how he interviewed King that day:

“He was taken to Harlem Hospital, where a surgeon operated on him successfully. King’s life was saved. And, a few hours later, I was allowed to interview the embattled minister…After managing to get into King’s hospital room, I was amazed at how calm he was. He said that he had no bitterness against Izola Curr, the woman who stabbed him in the sternum. ‘I think she needs help,’ King told me. ‘I’m not angry at her.'”

Indeed, King would never harbor any bitterness towards the black woman he knew was mentally ill, even the night before he died.

In remembering this, we thought of Yvonne McNeal, #75 on the Voice’s list of “The 100 Most Powerless New Yorkers,” a mentally ill homeless lesbian who was shot and killed by the NYPD when she was brandishing knives. It was exactly people like her, we thought — an economically poor, unknown woman who was suffering from mental illness and didn’t have secure access to a roof over her head — that are the kind of powerless New Yorkers King would be fighting to empower, were she still alive, and were he 83-years-old and still fighting economic justice today.

Indeed, looking back on his forgiveness of the New Yorker who stabbed him in 1958 and the speech he gave here in 1967, we can imagine King would fight on behalf of many on our list of the most powerless New Yorkers — the mentally ill in the library; the homeless queer teens fighting for for shelter beds; 82-year-old Mary Lee Ward fighting eviction in Bed-Stuy; retail clothing workers who are paid terribly and don’t even get their part-time schedules in advance; the Occupy Wall Street crust punks; the undocumented nannies, delivery people and human billboards who are subject to the shadow economy; and, of course, the sanitation workers — plus countless more.

It is these very people we imagine Dr. King would be standing with today, were he still alive, on his birthday.