It was in Memphis that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” on April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination. Fifty years later, on a damp Tuesday evening in Washington Square Park, his words rang out once again as New York City paid tribute to him.
NYU alum Mayor Bill de Blasio and first lady Chirlane McCray gave the foreword to the ceremony — de Blasio sporting a New York City Department of Sanitation jacket to remember King’s support of struggling sanitation workers in his last speech. While the goal of the ceremony was to remember the anniversary of King’s speech, it was also to honor last evening of the reverend’s life.
“The skies are crying tonight because we mark a very solemn, painful, powerful occasion,” de Blasio said. “Fifty years ago, this evening, was the last night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and that evening he gave a speech that defined his life journey.”
McCray also addressed the crowd. She was born the year that Brown v. Board of Education was decided, de Blasio said when he introducing her.
“I would not be standing here today if his words had not inspired so many people over the years since he was taken from us,” McCray said. “His words are alive and speaking to us now.”
As the recording of King’s last speech echoed throughout the park, the thunderous applause that punctuated his words in 1968 contrasted with the rather somber atmosphere of Washington Square Park.
A crowd formed around an empty podium set up to represent where he would have stood. LS first-year Sarah Countie and Gallatin first-year Sanjula Singh were on their way to get dinner when they saw the tribute and stopped to listen.
Countie said that with all the protests that have come about as a result of the current White House administration, it’s important to remember King’s words and his role as a civil rights leader.
“I think it’s nice to just have a reminder of previous leaders and to have that in mind while we keep on fighting for the same things that he was fighting for fifty years ago,” Countie said.
Singh mentioned the militant factions that existed during the 1960s and noted the importance of looking toward King as a symbol of peaceful protest.
“Change comes really slow so I think, now especially, it’s very frustrating but I think it’s good to know that this will pass and eventually we will gain rights for disadvantaged groups that don’t have them right now,” Singh said. “So it’s important to keep him in mind.”
As the celebration came to a close, Rev. Al Sharpton addressed the crowd. He said that while King marched for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, rights are still being violated, mentioning the killing of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, California. He called the crowd to action, to continue King’s struggle.
“It is our commitment tonight to not just remember the dreamer, but to fulfill the dream,” Sharpton said.
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