NEW YORK — Atlanta was the hometown of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but the civil rights leader, who certainly gained legendary status through his own tireless work, charisma and unorthodoxy, may never have been able to carry out his vision in the same way had it not been for another great city, New York.
King and New York were, in some very important ways, closely intertwined, and still are.
One of the most important associations between King and New York City was literally a matter of life and death.
In 1958, less than two years after Dr. King had worked with Rosa Parks and organized tens of thousands of others in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, an emotionally disturbed woman, Izola Curry, stabbed King during a book signing at Blumstein's Department Store in Harlem.
"Where would we be," asked Jacob Morris, director of the Harlem Historical Society, if not for the skilled work of doctors at Harlem Hospital, who saved King's life from the harm inflicted by the 7-inch blade of the letter opener with which he was stabbed. "It was millimeters [away]... so close to his heart," Morris said.
King's recovery from that brush with death made possible his increased activism of the next 10 years.
During that time, which included marches from Montgomery to Selma, the Children's March and many boycotts and other acts of civil disobedience, thousands of protesters got arrested.
"Harry Belafonte," said Morris, "got the civil rights movement out on bail."
He was referring to the actor, singer, director and activist Harry Belafonte, a native New Yorker, who was one of King's best friends, who gave and raised millions of dollars foe the civil rights movement. Belafonte's contributions were targeted in specific ways, including paying bail for thousands of activists who'd been arrested for simply exercising their constitutionally protected rights of freedom to protest.
New York was further critical in what some call the pivotal year of the civil rights movement, 1963. In June of that year, King gave the commencement address at City College, in the classical Roman-style amphitheater, Lewisohn Stadium. It was on the same day that King's close friend and fellow activist Medgar Evers was assassinated, and the same day President John F. Kennedy had agreed to get voting rights legislation passed in Washington.
The speech that King gave that evening provided broad inspiration for the increased involvement of organized labor in the civil rights movement. Much of that labor support was based in New York City.
The muscle and money of organized labor, in turn, would become a key element in a pinnacle moment in American history.
The March on Washington, at which Dr. King delivered his signature "I Have a Dream" speech, was funded in large part by New York entities, including organized labor. They provided transportation, logistic support, planning assistance and other resources without which the march could never have happened.
"That's why their grand marshal was A. Philip Randolph," the famed labor leader, said Morris, adding, "He lived in Harlem. So did Bayard Rustin." Rustin was Randolph's trusted lieutenant. Both men were the main organizers of the march.
For the next five years, at charity balls, speaking engagements and other events, New York was instrumental in powering and promoting the movement led by Dr. King.
During that time, at Riverside Church in Morningside Heights, on April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day before Martin Luther King was assassinated, King gave a speech on why he felt the Vietnam War was wrong.
He said that it was necessary for the U.S. to reverse course in the conflict because of "the fierce urgency of now."
It was those same five words that President Barack Obama used earlier this month to explain his executive orders regulating guns.
On Monday, at Riverside Church, the same venue where King first mentioned "the fierce urgency of now," in the very same pulpit, was King's old friend, Harry Belafonte.
In an address to the capacity audience, Belafonte explained how the struggle for dignity for all people is by no means over.
It was a reminder of how Martin Luther King's New York life continues to influence the lives of New Yorkers, and how the struggle that Dr. King almost gave his life for in this city, and subsequently sacrificed his life for 10 years later in Memphis, is ongoing.