MLK Day Draws Black Leadership to Harlem
By Ben Fractenberg and Jill Colvin
HARLEM — Political and civil rights leaders descended on Harlem Monday to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day and urge New Yorkers to continue Dr. King's work by taking action on some of the toughest issues in the neighborhood — guns, schools and wages.
"Right now we are at a time of very significant turmoil," said U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who spoke passionately at an event organized at Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network.
Gillibrand cautioned that tragedies like the Arizona shooting were happening every day across New York.
"Senseless acts of gun violence happen every single day in our communities, every single day," she said.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg was booed by the standing-room only crowd as he took to the podium — the only one on the long list of prominent politicians to be booed.
"This is a day when we pledge to further King's dreams," he said.
Bloomberg repeated his pledge to fight to close loopholes in gun laws and also reiterated his push to close upstate juvenile justice facilities that take kids away from their communities.
"Thank you. You should applaud. This is killing our kids," he said after some in the crowd clapped after he outlined his stance against illegal guns.
But he was booed again when he said that President Barack Obama considers the city a national model of education.
"Not true," some shouted from the packed aisles.
Earlier in the day, religious leaders and politicians welcomed new Schools Chancellor Cathie Black during the Convent Avenue Baptist Church's annual Martin Luther King Day service, urging her to improve the city’s education system.
Former mayor David Dinkins claimed there were more young African Americans in prison than attending school and urged Black to work toward keeping more students enrolled.
"Chancellor Black, it’s important we do something about that," Dinkins said.
Hazel N. Dukes, the president of the NAACP New York State Conference, urged Black to take the focus away from disciplining children at school and instead work to get better teachers.
"Chancellor Black, I’m glad that you’re here, but I don’t want you to be the disciplinarian of my children," she said. "I want some qualified teachers to teach my children."
The church was packed with several hundred congregants who clapped and called back to speakers as they connected Dr. King’s legacy to modern struggles.
"This is not a memorial service," Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, from the Lemuel Haynes Congregational Church, said to loud applause. "We came to revive the legacy of Martin Luther King."
Sekou spoke about the church’s support of a living wage law in New York.
"The City Council needs to be disabused of the notion a floor sweeper and cab driver not be able to make enough to live in this city," said Sekou.
Embattled Harlem congressman Charles Rangel was greeted with hugs and kind words before the service started.
Rangel sounded hoarse at both events as he spoke about the impact of Dr. King on his life.
"All of us have a bit of Martin Luther King in us," he said.
While speakers at both events celebrated past struggles, their focus was firmly planted on current issues.
"Things have gotten better, a whole lot better, but we’re not there yet," said Dinkins.