Martin Luther King Jr. is an American icon: one whose name is on street signs and schoolhouses across the country. If we associate him with a specific city, our minds usually jump to places in the south: Montgomery or Selma, Alabama. Perhaps even Washington, D.C., where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. For once, New York City is not top of mind.
But King’s connections to New York really do run deep. “He participated in this black radical tradition in New York that had been going on forever. When he’s in the city, he’s running in those networks, and some of those people are integral to advising him and helping the civil rights movement,” said Sarah Seidman, curator of a new exhibit on King at the Museum of the City of New York.
King In New York, which opened Saturday and runs through June 1, looks at King through the eyes of Gotham. The point of the show is to use New York as a lens to view King as a “complicated, broader, and in some ways, more threatening figure than he is often remembered,” Seidman said. “The overarching argument we’re making is that King had a strong presence [in New York City].”
Seidman wants the exhibit to show people sides of King that they may have forgotten about, or never learned: King as a union supporter, King as an anti-war activist, King as national symbol who had hyper-local ties.
A series of black and white photographs and assorted memorabilia, the exhibit is arranged in three sections: King’s presence on the New York stage, his international presence and politics, and New York City’s reaction to his assassination. There are scenes that are New York-specific: some of King’s most widely attended speeches in New York churches, his commencement address at the City College of New York, the party thrown in New York City in his honor after he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. There is also a photo of King on the steps of Harlem Hospital after recovering from a stabbing.
But the images go past place-based specificity and focus on King’s relationships with officials, activists, and everyday residents of New York City.
One photograph shows King with performer and activist Harry Belafonte, who raised money for the civil rights movement and helped to bail King and other activists out of jail. Another lesser-known supporter appears in an accompanying photograph: Bayard Rustin, a New York activist and intellectual who organized the first set of freedom rides in 1947 and led planning for the March on Washington out of Harlem. While Rustin was an “integral advisor” to King, Seidman said he was encouraged not to be a public face of the movement because he was openly gay and equally open about his socialist beliefs.
King, of course, had his own beliefs about economic structures—many of them hewed closer to democratic socialism than America’s hallowed capitalism. The exhibit has a photograph of King speaking to the a local New York contingent of the National Health Care Worker’s union. Hanging next to the photograph is vinyl record of several speeches King gave to unions in the 1960s.
One of the most notable photographs in the exhibit is of a meeting, in the Hotel Commodore in New York, between six giants of the civil rights movement as they planned the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Each of the men was representing a different coalition: John Lewis (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Whitney Young (National Urban League), A. Philip Randolph (Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), King (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), James Farmer (Congress of Racial Equality), and Roy Wilkins (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
“The show is about [King], and we don’t want to downplay his importance, but he is part of this broader network of men and women,” said Seidman. Though the speech King is most famous for was given at the March on Washington, Seidman stressed that King was one of many participants in the march. “It’s not his event, per se.” The exhibit showcases the way in which other activists, local officials, and religious figures from other faith traditions worked alongside King in New York City.
“We’re using New York to view him rather than vis versa,” Seidman said. “Looking through New York and what he did here gives us a broader picture of King.”
A photo from 1964 shows King outside Gracie Mansion after unsuccessfully petitioning then-mayor Robert Wagner to consider creating an external committee to investigate police violence. King had come down at the mayor’s request, an attempt to quell the uproar over the shooting of a 15-year-old boy in Harlem by an NYPD officer. Seidman said the meeting elicited conflict among local and religious leaders, who said they knew the situation on the ground far better than King. His status as a national hero could create friction on a more local scale.
But what truly caused a divide between King and other civil rights leaders and activists was his condemnation of the Vietnam War. In the exhibit, this stance is illustrated largely through a set of photos from two different events: King delivering his “Beyond Vietnam” speech in New York’s Riverside Church in 1967, and the Solidarity Day Parade at the United Nations Building, which King spoke at and helped to organize.
“Many people thought it was a strategically bad move,” Seidman explained. “[They said] it would distract from the civil rights movement, alienate Lyndon Johnson—which it totally did. I think many of their concerns came to pass. Weighing in on international politics was this very slippery slope: There was a degree of cooperation within U.S. and civil rights leaders within a very prescribed scope, and transgressing that was anathema. King acknowledged the dangers of speaking out against the war and hurting his more local campaigns, but felt that morally he had no choice and had to speak out against the war.”
The last section in the exhibit, about the aftermath of King’s assassination, shows gatherings held in New York City immediately after his death and memorabilia depicting the fight to establish his legacy (one pin advocates for a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day).
The exhibit’s final photo is of two young black boys reading an issue Freedomways, a theological, political, and cultural African American journal, with King on the front. The photograph was taken in 1968 in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, shortly before a months-long fight began over who would be allowed to teach in the neighborhoods’ predominately black school districts. Seidman said the photo was chosen specifically to emphasize that there is no neat bow to tie on the issue of civil rights in America—to impress upon the viewer that King’s legacy, the work he did in New York and across the country, is far from complete.
“Racism in New York and racial struggles definitely continue even as people are grappling with how to remember King,” she said.
CORRECTION: This article originally misstated the year of the first freedom rides. They were in 1947, not 1957.