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Martin Luther King Day events and Historic photographs

Free events, big events, interesting events and photos about Reverend King and New York City

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Photograph: Elena Olivo

Since it was first observed nationwide in January of 1986, the holiday commemorating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has served as a reminder of his legacy to the causes of civil rights, nonviolent opposition and community service. Along with becoming a volunteer in NYC to help honor Dr. King's memory, there are plenty of Martin Luther King Day events to check out on the day itself over the weekend, including live-music tributes, museum exhibitions, readings and more.

Studio Museum in Harlem

MLK Day Studio Museum in Harlem is free from 12N to 6pm!

When Studio Museum opened in 1968, it was the first black fine-arts museum in the country, and it remains the place to go for historical insight into African-American art and the art of the African diaspora. Under the leadership of director Thelma Golden (formerly of the Whitney), this neighborhood favorite has evolved into the city’s most exciting showcase for contemporary African-American artists.

30th Annual Brooklyn Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

31st Annual Brooklyn Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. @10:30am

Usher in BAM’s 31st celebration with one of the founders of #BlackLivesMatter as well as racial justice and immigrant rights activist Opal Tometi, who will deliver what is bound to be a tearful and uplifting keynote speech. The memorial continues with show-stopping musical performances by gospel legends of the Institution Radio Choir and the bluesy Sacred Steel band the Campbell Brothers.

MLK Day Walking Tour of Harlem Monday 11am and 1 pm Click here for reservations.


Historic photographs

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Blumstein’s Department Store (1958)

In 1958, King traveled to New York to promote his new book about the Montgomery bus boycott, Stride Towards Freedom: The Montgomery Story. The politics of his visit were messy, not only was Harlem in the midst of a competitive election, but King was met coolly by the NAACP, who now competed with him for donor dollars and found his civil disobedience strategy undignified. (Thurgood Marshall called him “a first-rate rabble rouser.”) Optics were further complicated when King’s people turned down a book signing at a store run by a black nationalist in favor of an upscale white department store, Blumstein’s.

On September 21, at Blumstein’s book signing, a mentally unstable woman stabbed King in the chest with a letter opener, lodging it between his heart and his lungs. King was rushed to Harlem Hospital and underwent a successful operation. It took him several weeks to recover at the hospital and then in Brooklyn, the operation leaving a cross-shaped scar on King’s chest, which he’d later point to with pride.

Dr. King Leaving Harlem Hospital. Screenshot via Harlem Hospital video.

Rev.Martin Luther King, Jr. and the NYS Civil War Centennial Commission (1962)  

MLK with Francis Joseph Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York, and Governor Nelson Rockefeller at Emancipation Proclamation Dinner-NYC. Image via NY State Archives

King was invited by the New York State Civil War Centennial Commission to deliver a keynote commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, an event organized by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. King expressed hesitation at participating, concerned that appearing at a Republican-led event would offend President Kennedy and hurt the progress of civil rights legislation, but Rockefeller sealed the deal by pledging funds to rebuild several African-American churches that had been burned in Georgia.  On September 12, 1962, at the Park-Sheraton Hotel (now Park Central), King offered a blistering assessment of America’s lack of progress in advancing equal rights for blacks. The “Proclamation of Inferiority,” he claimed, “has contended with the Proclamation of Emancipation, negating its liberating force.”

The Museum’s video accompanying the speech audio features a scrolling written copy that makes it easier to follow along, including notes where King made late alterations to his prepared remarks.

Mayor Wagner Honors King with Medallion (1964)

Martin Luther King Jr. Medallion of Honor-Mayor Wagner-NYC-City Hall. Photo from Municipal Archives

In 1964 King was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, and New York City offered its congratulations. On December 17, 1964, King was was honored with the City of New York Medallion of Honor at an event in the City Council chambers at City Hall. Not only were the City’s religious leaders on hand, but the national anthem was played by the Department of Sanitation Band! In bestowing King with the Medallion, Mayor Robert Wagner, Jr. offered, “This is not your city of residence, Dr. King, but it is your city nevertheless… We claim you, henceforth, as an honorary New Yorker.” During Wagner’s three terms he generally demonstrated a strong commitment to civil rights, but during the past year he had been struggling with demonstrations related to school integration, and he would not run for re-election the following year.


Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Riverside Church (1967)  

Dr King at TRC

During a conference of the group, Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, Dr. King delivered his speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” at Riverside Church.


On April 4, 1967, King delivered “Beyond Vietnam” at the Riverside Church on 121st Street. A criticism of the war in Vietnam, the speech linked critiques of U.S. foreign and domestic policies. King laments, “We have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.”

During his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama frequently cited the “fierce urgency of now,” a phrase King employs during this speech. Meanwhile The New York Times blasted King in an editorial named “Dr. King’s Error.” LBJ fumed at MLK’s “betrayal” on Vietnam, and severed a relationship that, contrary to its presentation in the movie Selma, had previously been one of significant cooperation and amicability. Eerily, King’s sermon at Riverside took place exactly a year before he was killed.


Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Carnegie Hall (1968)

Dr. Martin Luther King at the podium, Carnegie Hall, February 23, 1968. Photo by Jim Hinton, courtesy of Norma Rogers/ Carnegie Hall Archives.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? For Dr. King, it was the 100th Birthday of W.E.B. Du Bois, a pioneer in the African-American community.  The event, held on February 23, 1968, was King’s last address in New York and one of his final public speeches. As befitting the occasion, the speech is largely a glowing tribute to Du Bois, with King crediting the ease with which he moved through both the highest levels of academic achievement and gritty, on the ground organizing. King remarked that "Dr. DuBois has left us, but he has not died. The spirit of freedom is not buried in the grave of the valiant."

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