NEW YORK—The third Monday of January is set aside every year to remember the great civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King shared his now-famous dream of racial equality from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 48 years ago, in August 1963.
King would have been 82 years old on Jan. 15, were his life not cut short by a bullet at the age of 39 in Memphis, Tenn. Celebrations of King’s life and lasting influence will spring up throughout the city and the whole world on Monday.
Marble Community Gospel Choir got an early start on the commemoration Sunday. Together with renowned actor and singer Ben Vereen, the choir celebrated King’s life with song at Marble Collegiate Church on 29th Street and Broadway.
“I cannot afford the luxury of a negative thought!” Vereen’s booming voice resonated through the church. When he is not thinking positively, “then I forget about [King’s] march, I forget about the love,” he said. “That’s what Martin was about—service—serving each other,” he reminded the crowd.
King was not only a trailblazer for African American rights and unity among all people, but also a reverend and a lover of gospel music. Gospel music great Mahalia Jackson was his favorite. She passed away in 1972, but her memory lived alongside his on Sunday.
“Music is the great leveler,” explained theater director and playwright Charles Randolph-Wright. He sees King’s appreciation of this musical genre as inseparable from the message he spread. Gospel inspires togetherness and hope, Wright noted. “It makes everyone sing [and] join together,” he said.
King was arrested about 30 times as he travelled the nation and spoke up wherever he saw injustice. As Vereen embarked on singing “Is my Living in Vain?”—a song of hope—he pictured King sitting in a prison cell feeling a little dejected.
Vereen began, “If I can help somebody as I travel along; if I can help somebody with a song; if I can help somebody who might go wrong, then my life shall not be in vain!”
King was born the son of a pastor in Atlanta. After graduating from a segregated public school at the age of 15, he continued his education for over a decade. He studied theology, received many honors as a distinguished student and graduated with a doctorate in 1955.
King led a bus boycott that got the wheels rolling toward a U.S. Supreme Court declaration on Dec. 21, 1956, that ended the racial segregation on buses once and for all. King’s home was bombed during the 382-day boycott and he experienced many hardships. However, he emerged strong and determined to maintain a non-violent course of motivating change.
“In the 11-year period between 1957 and 1968, King traveled over six million miles and spoke over 2,500 times,” states the Nobel Prize website. King was the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to him in 1964, a year after he led the march of 250,000 people in Washington and gave his famed “I Have a Dream” address. He was also named Time Magazine’s man of the year in 1963.
King’s list of accomplishments is extensive. He left his mark on New York as he did on the whole world. In 1967, the year before his assassination, King led the largest anti-war protest in the city to date. He was followed by 1,100 people from Central Park to the U.N. to voice protest of the Vietnam War.
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