A large photo of a contemplative Dr. King overlooked the stage at the Howard Gilman Opera House, where half a dozen elected officials spoke and performers sang songs in honor of King’s birthday. The Brooklyn Interdenominational Choir and musician Martha Redbone led the musical performances.
Though the annual celebration commemorated King’s life and legacy of fighting for civil rights, most of the speakers contrasted the civil rights leader’s actions to those of President Donald Trump. Many drew lessons from the civil rights movement and applied them directly to the resistance against Trump today.
“Our nation has taken some steps backwards,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “I can’t help but feel a sense of despair at a year that was so divisive and demoralizing.”
She noted the seemingly rising rate of hate crimes, increased bullying in schools, Ku Klux Klan flyers, and the white supremacist rallies in Virginia. She denounced policies that hurt the poor, elderly, and people of color in the country. She criticized the lack of action on gun violence.
Gillibrand also referenced Trump’s most recent vulgar comments about immigrants coming from poor countries in Africa and Haiti.
“These are not the first, nor the last, bigoted words we’ve heard from our president,” she said. “It was beneath the dignity of our humanity.”
The senator urged the audience to stay determined, not give up the fight against injustice, and protect the most vulnerable.
“Our work is not finished until there is no one left behind,” Gillibrand said. “We owe it to Dr. King and all those who fight to never lose hope and never stop fighting.”
Without mentioning Trump’s name, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson blasted the “scary, racist man” in the White House as “nuts.” He implored everyone to be active participants in democracy to defend rights won during the civil rights movement.
“We’re going to fight back what’s happening in Washington,” Johnson said. “We have to get involved, the future of our country depends on it.”
Borough President Eric Adams also slammed Trump’s actions as “idiot behavior” and “buffoonery.” He asked voters to help “take back the Senate and the Congress” this November at the ballot box.
“We must be focused and disciplined and committed,” Adams said. “These are great moments and great times, and we’re ready for them.”
After a set of performances, Mayor Bill de Blasio stepped onto the stage. He provided New Yorkers some encouragement about overcoming the odds to make change in their communities. He pointed to Dr. King and “his movement” as an example of overcoming “huge barriers of resistance.”
“They did not stop in the face of adversity. Imagine trying to build a movement for change in that atmosphere,” the mayor said. “That should inspire us to recognize we can overcome whatever is thrown at us in this time.
“Dr. King and his movement dealt with things they knew all too well and that seemed impenetrable, intractable and yet they soldiered on with a kind of hope that we need to find in ourselves today,” de Blasio added. “Had they not, had they become discouraged and depressed and confused and tired, there’s so much that we would not be able to do today.”
Like the other speakers, the mayor referenced tweets from President Trump, and “stupid” things happening in Washington, D.C. He pumped up the crowd by asking if they were ready to “fight back.”
Providing a few instances of when grassroots organizing worked, he applauded the Women’s March, calling it the “largest, most pervasive” demonstration in history. He touted his administration’s own policy of ending unconstitutional stop-and-frisks, while also making the city safer.
His last example was the defeat of Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore at the hands of Democrat Doug Jones. De Blasio said that happened not just because there was a “repulsive” candidate from the GOP, but that people wanted change in their state.
“So why did people come out in record numbers?” he said. “Because they believed they could make a change.”
The commemoration concluded with remarks by keynote speaker Jelani Cobb, a staff writer for The New Yorker and historian at Columbia University. He zeroed in specifically on Trump’s words about Haiti and Africa, giving context and history to the relationship between them and the United States.
Tying in the life of Dr. King to today, the Columbia University professor said King warned the country about racism, militarism and economic exploitation. He cited the civil rights leader’s steadfast opposition to the Vietnam War, and his Poor People’s Campaign nearly 50 years ago.
Cobb argued that that through Trump’s history of accusations of racism, the Republican tax bill, and tweets about nuclear conflict, the president may embody all three aspects that King fought against.
“We see racism espoused from the nation’s highest offices,” he said. “I lament the moment Dr. King can be commemorated by a man like the president.”