Martin Luther King Jr. gave the most famous speech of his life in Washington, DC — but saved his more controversial declarations for the liberal audiences in New York.
That’s what curator Sarah J. Seidman found in her research for “King in New York,” the new photography exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. Opening Saturday — two days before the 89th anniversary of his Jan. 15, 1929, birth — the show features roughly 45 images, spanning the civil rights leader’s visits to the city from the 1950s until his assassination in 1968.
Among the moments captured is Dr. King making some last-minute notes in the hallway of Upper Manhattan’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, before speaking from its ornate pulpit. His mouth tensed in concentration, King was about to lay out his argument against the war in Vietnam for the first time, citing its disproportionate impact on African-Americans and other impoverished groups.
That speech and others drew criticism from the N.A.A.C.P, as well the New York Times editorial board. “Now, it’s almost hard to fathom how controversial it was for a notable person like King to speak out against the war,” Seidman tells The Post. But in her view, it’s not surprising that King chose to unveil his tour de force speech, called “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” in this city, where he maintained close ties to radicals, activists and intellectuals.
The Georgia native was declared an “honorary New Yorker” in 1964 by Mayor Robert F. Wagner, who also gave him the Medallion of Honor. Seidman says the two had deep respect for each other but were briefly estranged earlier that year when, after the police shooting of 15-year-old James Powell on the Upper East Side, King urged an independent review of the city’s police department.
Beyond highlighting the high-profile, historic moments — like King’s 1962 Speech at the Midtown Manhattan Park Sheraton Hotel in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, where he appeared at Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s invitation — there are also photos of King addressing the local unions, and highlights from his relationships with a number of “behind-the-scenes” New Yorkers, like Harry Belafonte, who advised him throughout his career.
But Seidman believes it’s that appearance at Riverside Church, in Morningside Heights, that defines King’s relationship with the city, a place where he felt comfortable rolling out provocative ideas about the connection between war, race and poverty. As Seidman sees it, “King’s persona in New York really drives home his broader vision.”
“King in New York” runs through June 1 at the Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Ave. at 103rd Street; mcny.org
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