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Museum of the City of New York opens exhibition to honor Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years after his tragic death
Martin Luther King at Reception after the W.E.B. Du Bois Centennial Tribute at Carnegie Hall where he gave the keynote speech, February 23, 1968. Photo by Builder Levy, courtesy of the photographer.

NEW YORK, NY.- On Saturday, January 13, 2018, the Museum of the City of New York will launch King in New York , a photography exhibition exploring the relationship between Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most important and influential figures of the 20th century, and New York City. The exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death and celebrates what would have been his 89th birthday on January 15, 2018. King in New York delves into events from the 1950s and continues through the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination in 1968.

Martin Luther King Jr., a frequent presence in New York City, was a revered and charismatic pastor and civil rights activist known for his inspirational oratory and organizational leadership. Dr. King was also an accomplished scholar, prolific writer, fierce fighter for racial, economic, and social justice, and visionary crusader for peace. His impact on the United States of America and the fight for human rights worldwide is rivalled by few other historical figures, but the true breadth of his vision is not always remembered. King in New York links the icon with the city that hosted several momentous episodes of his storied and celebrated life of activism and advocacy.

While in New York, Dr. King delivered many important sermons and speeches, worked behind the scenes with other activists on civil and human rights campaigns, and met with local and international leaders. New York, which was the home of many trusted advisors to the civil rights leader, served as a major influence on his personal and professional evolution. In 1964, Mayor Robert F. Wagner awarded Dr. King the Medallion of Honor and proclaimed him “an honorary New Yorker.”

“Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death and in celebration of his 89th birthday, King in New York sheds lights on the important influence that New York City had on one of the most revered leaders of the civil rights movement,” said Whitney Donhauser, Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum of the City of New York. “King in New York illuminates a dimension of Martin Luther King, Jr. that is often overlooked in his relation to New York and the city’s role in the black freedom movement.”

The exhibition combines photographs selected from the Museum’s collection with many more gathered from a wide range of photographers including Benedict J. Fernandez, Fred McDarrah, Burt Glinn, Builder Levy, Austin Hansen, Monroe Frederick, and John C. Goodwin, among others. King in New York examines Dr. King’s activities within the five boroughs, highlighting momentous occasions, including one of his earliest guest sermons at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in 1956; his speech at the Park Sheraton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan in 1962 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation; his watershed speech against the Vietnam War at Riverside Church in 1967; and the W.E.B. DuBois Centennial Tribute at Carnegie Hall where he gave the keynote speech a few weeks before his death.

“These photographs illuminate aspects of Martin Luther King Jr. that are less often explored, like his linking of racism with poverty and war,” explained Sarah Seidman, Puffin Foundation Curator of Social Activism, who co-organized the exhibition with Sean Corcoran, Curator of Prints and Photographs. “These positions garnered significant controversy and pushback at the time – from both the United States government and other civil rights leaders – and help us remember him in all of his complexity.”

King in New York is organized in three sections:

King on the New York Stage
As the media capital of the nation, New York played a pivotal role in broadcasting Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and message to local and global audiences through books, newspapers, and television. Dr. King held countless national press conferences in New York to decry racial discrimination in voting rights, employment, housing, and public accommodations, and to demand social change in the country. He traveled to New York often to speak to religious audiences, unions, political groups and influencers.

New York was also the frequent site of organizational meetings for civil rights campaigns. In addition to conferring with national groups based in New York like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Dr. King’s Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had an office in Harlem and included New York members and allies, such as longtime pacifist and activist Bayard Rustin, activist and entertainer Harry Belafonte, and the attorney and businessman Stanley Levison. A pragmatic tactician as well as philosophical believer in non-violent civil disobedience, Dr. King often straddled divergent factions of the black freedom movement, and served as a bridge between its generations.

King on the Global Stage
On April 4, 1967, Dr. King mounted the pulpit at the Riverside Church in Morningside Heights on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to deliver a sermon denouncing the Vietnam War. Speaking as “a citizen of the world,” Dr. King cited his commitment to non-violence, but also argued that the war took away resources and people from the fight for racial equality and against poverty at home.

This was not the first time Dr. King had spoken out against the Vietnam War or commented on global politics. He often made insightful, controversial and powerful remarks about the Cold War and the independence movements in former colonies around the world. Fellow civil rights leaders, the United States government, and the New York Times condemned Dr. King for connecting racism with U.S. military actions abroad.

New York—the preeminent global city—was a critically important site for the emergence and dissemination of Dr. King’s internationalist stance. Here, he visited the United Nations and met with world leaders to raise awareness for his campaigns. The city also served as a stopping-off point on Dr. King’s global travels; and it was the site of continued antiwar activism by Dr. King and others during the last year of his life.

Remembering King
Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where he came to support African American sanitation workers who were on strike. James Earl Ray was convicted of the murder. King was 39.

New Yorkers, along with people around the world, immediately mourned and protested. Violence broke out across the country on the night of Dr. King’s death, an expression of anger, deep frustration, and outrage at his murder. New York Mayor John V. Lindsay walked the streets of Harlem to promote calm. New York faced less unrest than other cities. In the days following the assassination, thousands of leaders and everyday New Yorkers marched in Harlem and Midtown Manhattan and gathered for a concert in Central Park to share their grief.

In subsequent decades, Martin Luther King, Jr. was immortalized and memorialized across the country and around the globe. However, Dr. King’s more controversial campaigns and critical words and views are not always remembered. Tracing Dr. King’s footsteps through New York sheds light on the brilliance, richness, and complexity of his life, and the dream of a society free of racism, poverty, and war for which he fought tirelessly and eventually sacrificed his life.

King in New York is made possible in part by James G. Dinan and Elizabeth R. Miller, and Heather and William Vrattos.

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