NEW YORK—The Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the civil rights advocacy organization National Action Network (NAN), invited the city’s key politicians to reflect on Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolence at the NAN headquarters in Harlem on Monday. King’s message of nonviolence resonated with the recent shooting in Arizona.
“King was a critic of gun violence, and a victim of it,” said Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).
King’s home was bombed twice over his years of vocal activism, and he received threats almost daily. He fell victim to an assassin’s bullet at the age of 39 while standing on his motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn.
"As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation—either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course," Mayor Michael Bloomberg quoted King, noting his resilience through the violence perpetrated against him.
King’s eloquent words and his inspiring actions were a thread running through politicians’ speeches. Hundreds of people packed the House of Justice on West 145th Street. The predominantly African-American crowd spilled out onto the street, where they could still hear the speeches from a loudspeaker.
Bloomberg was met by a mixed reaction—“boos” mingled with subdued clapping. The mayor was introduced by the Rev. Sharpton, who lauded his appearance at the House of Justice, as the two have not always seen eye-to-eye in the past. Sharpton reflected that King worked closely with his adversaries, recognizing that cooperation is the only way to effect change.
After an awkward start, Bloomberg broke the ice by joking that Sharpton might be played by Denzel Washington if his book, “Mountain Highs and Valley Lows,” is ever made into a movie. He earned a couple of chuckles, and soon won some applause for his tough stance on gun control.
The recent shooting in Tuscon, Ariz., that left 6 dead and 13 wounded, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, ignited a national gun control debate. Bloomberg joined 500 mayors in the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition to hammer out stricter rules for obtaining firearms. Jared Loughner, the Tuscon shooter, was turned away by the army after failing a drug test. The mayors are calling for better interagency communication to identify people who should not own a gun. Those with a record of drug abuse should have to wait five years instead of one to get a gun, they said.
African-American young men are 10 times more likely to die of gun violence than their Caucasian counterparts, the mayor pointed out. Though King won many victories for African-American civil rights, many more are left to the activists of today.
A DREAM OF RACIAL EQUALITY
In contrast to Mayor Bloomberg’s welcome, former Mayor David Dinkins was hailed by Rev. Sharpton as an old friend and received warm applause from the audience.
“It is important to recognize the distance we have come,” declared Dinkins. He said we need to let our young people know, “it wasn’t always the way it is today, and tomorrow, pray God, it won’t be the way it is today.”
Sharpton pointed out that the civil rights battles of 50 years ago are not the battles of today.
“We can check into any hotel. We can buy coffee anywhere. The problem is, we can’t afford it,” declared Sharpton. The reverend has set his focus on winning a better education for African-American students. He met with the U.S. secretary of Education in Washington Monday morning before arriving at the House of Justice in Harlem. While Dr. King saw the end of segregation in schools, NAN maintains education is still not equal.
“An injustice to anyone anywhere must be the concern of everyone everywhere,” a prominent figure in the national Jewish community and founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, Rabbi Marc Schneier, said quoting King. He sees another civil rights issue popping up in the city and the nation with the American Muslim community being demonized.
“Today in the U.S. there is a new victim of injustice. There is a new victim of bigotry and discrimination. There is a new victim of hate mongering,” said Schneier.