Brooklyn pays tribute to MLK

Dr. Martin Luther King jr.

NEW YORK* — It’s astonishing to think that Martin Luther King was just 39 years old when he died. Had he not been shot by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968, he would be 81 this year.

Today is Martin Luther King day in the US, the only American public holiday dedicated to an individual. It falls on the Monday closest to January 15, MLK’s birthday. It’s designated as a “day of service,” the idea being that people use the holiday to volunteer to do good work of some kind. To mark it, I went with friend L. to a tribute to this brave man at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

L. had warned me to arrive early. In previous years, after the event featured in the media, it was impossible to get in. So I turned up at 9.45am, a good 45 minutes before it began, and joined the line outside. It was fascinating to see who was there — a small number of white people (why so few?) but mostly elegant African Americans in their Sunday best.

We were bowled over by the brilliance of the gospel singers from the New Life Tabernacle Mass Choir. The pastor himself was musically gifted, and he led the choir with a smooth warm voice. The singers swayed and clapped and sang their hearts out, while several in the audience stood up and whooped and sang along, including one adorable little boy in the seats in front of us. For some songs, a woman led the choir, wearing a short black dress, high heels (of course) and a delicate long coat that looked like a dressing gown. She was joyously over the top, urging the choir to sing out and at one point lying on the stage in a fetching pose.

One of the preachers summed up the mood perfectly. In his church, he said (in the underprivileged area of Bedstuy in Brooklyn), the congregation tell him they are “too blessed to be stressed.”

Actor Danny Glover was the keynote speaker, and he described America as living in the wake, not of MLK’s death, but of his absence. Glover wondered what questions MLK would ask if he were alive today. Wouldn’t he ask why Haiti had been treated so badly by history? Glover, who is 63, broke down, his voice cracking.

Brooklyn has the largest population of Haitians in the world outside that country. There must be many who are suffering here.

The district attorney, Charles Hynes, said that at any point in time, 25% of young African Americans are in prison or on probation or parole. This statistic was so shocking I wondered if I’d misheard it, but L. said that was right.

One of the last speakers was Dr. William Pollard, president of  Medgar Evers College, a historically black school. He too spoke of Haiti. A student from the college recently visited Haiti with his mother for a holiday and is still there now, trying to return. Pollard said the student had told him, over email, that US embassy officials had arranged a line at the airport. It was for journalists and caucasian Americans only.

At the tribute’s end, the choir-master preacher returned to the stage and said, “Let’s have some more church!” And the singing began again.

*I got back to NYC last week.

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