Author’s Note: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered for his groundbreaking efforts in fighting for civil rights and racial equality, but what is often forgotten is that his demands went much further than race. On the evening of April 4, 1967 at Manhattan’s Riverside Church, King called into question the United States’ military involvement in Vietnam in the most controversial dissertation he delivered publicly. King challenged the morals of the American forces behind Western imperialism and capitalism. His visionary scope and criticism in the halls of Riverside that night were limitless. The reaction, nonetheless, came to backfire with the New York Times and Washington Post slamming him for “going too far” and being “unpatriotic.” But on that stoic evening at Riverside, King showed how far his love reached. He chose to unleash his moral capacity and break all barriers withholding him from pouring out his heart with heavy volumes of truth in resistance to militaristic power and public approval. The march for justice lives on.
A scintillating fire brews on the northeast corner of West 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard in New York City. It’s April 4, 2018 — a half century to the day that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated outside of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Shockwaves of history and injustice reverberate against the crowd standing at the jam packed Harlem intersection.
Community activists, organizers, artists and residents are drawn to the statue of Adam Clayton Powell by the grip of Dr. King’s uncompromising love, but more significantly by his unfinished plan. King’s call-to-action is reinvoked fifty years later.
A young hispanic woman in a grey blazer — clipboard in one hand, microphone in the other — steps up to the marble directly below the feet of the statue. Her name is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old community activist and Democratic congressional candidate for New York’s 14th district primary in the Bronx and Queens. She is a self-described democratic socialist, just as Dr. King was. Her eyes partially squinted, she takes in a deep breath and looks out into the crowd.
“It’s no secret that we are here today to mark the end — the anniversary of the end of Dr. King’s life,” she declares. “…And that begs the question for us as to what the next beginning is. Because while King had a dream, we hold the candle, and that candle does not extinguish…
Our question is how are we moving it forward?”
Unsteady winds crash into the cardboard signs reading BLACK LIVES MATTER and DREAM=JUSTICE. The microphone’s reach struggles to overcome the chaotic rush hour buzz. There is no room left at the edge of the sidewalk.
The crowd of nearly two hundred is instructed to file into the north lane of 125 Street. NYPD personnel guide the way for marchers and hold up traffic as photographers rush the frontlines for snapshots.
The march weaves its way toward the West Side of Manhattan Island moving at the pace of justice — slow and tamed, but bold and defiant.
Passing by open bodegas, barbershops and other small businesses, several Harlem residents stop to look from the sidewalk pavement at the marchers in the street taking hold of strangers’ hands and singing famous anthems from the civil rights movement.
The sun sets on those angelic voices but humanity’s flame carries on in darkness.
I believe…I believe!
I believe that we will win!
I believe that we will win!
I believe that we will win!!!
A sea of reporters and camera crews block the entrance at the steps of the church as the march arrives moments before the service. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo appears from the woodworks to shake hands with the leading marchers and pose for a quick photo with Hawk Newsome, the President of Black Lives Matter Greater New York and the man responsible for orchestrating the march.
Newsome is a towering, robust figure wearing a charcoal-colored overcoat with large black beaded necklaces, a black dress shirt, black tie and navy blue jeans. Red and green patches of the United States and Black Liberation flags rest on his sleeves. He and Cuomo lock arms and lead the charge into the halls of Riverside, taking the same steps King took exactly 49 years earlier before his infamous speech criticizing the war in Vietnam.
The marchers’ exulting chants echo off Riverside’s towering arches and into the souls of those already seated in the pews. Many stand and applaud the incoming coalition of rally-goers while others stay seated but sing along in praise. A section in front of centerstage is left vacant for the dozens of marchers. Soon after, the entire room is filled and the church is silent.
The first remarks of the night belong to the governor, who begins talking about King’s legacy.
“The more you read and the more you learn, the more inspirational [King] is and the deeper his thinking is,” says Cuomo, who then strategically inserts his political talking points, knowing all too well that his seat is up for reelection in November. He politicizes many severe problems in his governing state of New York, from housing to criminal justice to education.
“We have two education systems. Not public and private. One for the rich and one for the poor,” says the governor. “We’ve had the same failing schools for over three generations and we keep sending child after child after child...”
People unsatisfied in the pews yell to the stage: “What are you going to do about it?!”
Portions of the audience halfheartedly clap as Cuomo finishes his speech and steps down from the podium. He does not return to his seat behind the choir, promptly leaving through a backstage entrance.
Meanwhile, a black and white image of Dr. King giving a speech is displayed on the stage’s projector.
Arthur McFarlane, a Harlem native, civil rights activist and the great grandson of W.E.B. Du Bois, arrives at the podium moments later. Dressed in what appears to be a white clerical gown, McFarlane takes in a lump of air before giving his address.
“We are still here,” he says calmly, “having a conversation about economic inequalities, discrimination in housing, limited work opportunities, stilted educational opportunities, inadequacies in heath care, and on, and on, and on.”
A somber silence spreads across the faces in the aisles. Dr. King’s everlasting mission echoes itself into a timeless state of delirium commonly evident throughout the course of American history. This refers to the modern day crises of mass incarceration, the criminalization of black and brown bodies, starvation wages, mass homelessness, a lack of funding in public education, a corrupt campaign financing system and the mighty power behind the United States’ military-industrial complex. Just as McFarlane suggests, the list goes on and on.
But the people in attendance are aware of how dire the situation around the nation and the globe is. McFarlane is trying to strike a chord with those who are unaware of history’s revolving door.
Next up is the youth choir, who strikes a chord with an uplifting message in performing a rendition of gospel singer Norman Hutchins’ Emmanuel.
Emmanuel, another name used for Jesus Christ, means “God is With Us” in a biblical definition. Tonight, Emmanuel is not used as another name for Jesus Christ in this historic house of worship, but it is used as another name for Martin, the man who told Memphis’ Mason Temple congregation just hours before he was murdered that he has already been to the mountain top and saw the coming of the Lord.
Come let us adore him
Kneel down before him
Worship and adore him
We worship you! (x2)
The final speaker of the night is fittingly the man who started the evening on 125 Street by leading the march to Riverside — Hawk Newsome.
Getting up from his seat, he stands and turns around to face the congregation, remaining at eye level with the audience.
Newsome reminisces on his upbringing in Harlem and how much he’s overcome since dropping out of high school to obtain his GED and law degree. He touches on the impact of his father who inspired him to become an advocate and voice for the community. The tone in his words is deep, but the range in his vocal chords is resolute and unapologetic.
“I was moved by the youth choir because I was trying to think of a speech,” he says while pulling out a white piece of paper from the inside of his jacket.
“…I never write speeches. I always just pray and go from my heart.”
Pointing at the gospel choir in front, Newsome says bluntly, “You spoke to me. You spoke to my heart and encouraged me to be myself and put this speech back in my pocket.”
The audience gives him an audacious round of applause.
“My heart is heavy,” he assures the congregation after informing them that yet another mentally-ill unarmed black man — Saheed Vassell — was fatally shot by police officers earlier this evening, this time in the local area of Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
“But for some reason, I feel hopeful. I feel inspired. Because each time we undergo an act of aggression, we as a people grow stronger…God did not make us to remain silent. He gave us a spirit of courage…”
Newsome reminds the audience, just as Dr. King always preached, that love is about understanding one another. “We get to that promise land through unity,” he declares. Newsome’s message signifies a two-pronged approach necessary for any strong community: compassion and action.
“This country was built on our oppression. Five hundred years we slaved and we bled, and we continue to do so — you know why? Because our allies don’t come through for us. Half the time we don’t come through for ourselves. So when it comes down to it, it isn’t just black people who are going to save themselves. It isn’t just white friends who are going to save us. It’s all of us together,” he says. “We have to come together and be the human race. That’s the only race that’s important.”
Newsome reaches a vain in the crowd as the room erupts in applause and showers amens throughout. He demands the congregation to stand up and stand with him in the fight.
“In honor of Dr. King and his brilliant strategies and his peaceful ways, we will march towards liberation together. I want all of you to join us in this march.”
With every person in attendance standing including the full Riverside gospel choir on stage, Newsome walks the path in the spirit of Dr. King, going down the middle aisle towards the front of the church chanting “I Believe That We Will Win.”
The front of the congregation follows behind him, them too, walking beyond King’s dream and in the direction of the promised land.