In the 25th anniversary year of his holiday and what would have been the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s 82nd year, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. is remembered in 2011 with a memorial on the National Mall in D.C. and a Broadway imagining of his last night before his assassination on April 4, 1968.
“Mountaintop,” starring Samuel Jackson and Angela Bassett, is set in the Memphis motel where King was slain. In the two-person production that cut its teeth in London and won the 2010 Olivier Award (the Tony equivalent) for Best New Play, playwright Katori Hall — who grew up in Memphis — throws away King’s melliflous speeches to find a raw, humorous rapport between a depressed, fearful and worn-down icon and a nonchalant hotel maid. The play’s surprising twist won’t be revealed here.
Though most of King’s work seemed to take place in the South, the heavy responsibility of altering a nation’s conscience and saving his very own life played out in New York City as well.
King’s first national support came from New York-based organizations such the National Urban League and Harlem churches with great community reach, such as the powerful Abyssinian Baptist Church. The 30-year-old King came to New York in September 1958 to promote his first book, “Stride Towards Freedom,” which documented his first major victory, the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Among those aiding the busy King with the manuscript was close friend and historian Lawrence Reddick, the curator who followed in Arturo Schomburg’s footsteps at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library.
Reddick wrote the first biography of King in 1959, “Crusader Without Violence,” in which he detoured to note, “Whenever he is in New York for several days, King tries to get in at least one Broadway or little theatre show. He has seen Mr. ‘Wonderful,’ ‘South Pacific’ and ‘Damn Yankees.’”
King’s own book had been commissioned by Harper and Brothers expressly to reach a white audience, but the book signing was held in Harlem at Blumstein’s Department store at 230 West 125th Street, which in 1934 had responded to the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” boycott by hiring more black employees.
On Sept. 20, King had not even looked up from the desk at the signing when Izola Curry, a mentally disturbed black woman, stabbed him with a sharp letter opener, its tip lodging deep in his chest. Rushed to Harlem Hospital, King underwent surgery and was later told by Dr. Aubre Maynard, the hospital’s first black chief surgeon, that had he made the slightest false move, or even sneezed, his aorta would have been punctured and he would have quickly bled to death.
In a 1996 interview, Maynard recalled: ”For him to be brought to Harlem Hospital for a dangerous thing like that, where his life was at stake, it was a challenge. Could Harlem Hospital show that it was up to this task? You see, ‘it was a city hospital, and it was looked down upon. It was up to me to show the world that it could be done there.”
During two weeks of recovery at Harlem Hospital and further convalescence at his friend Rev. Sandy Ray’s Cornerstone Baptist Church in Bedford Stuyvesant, King had regular meetings with his New York City mentors, including Bayard Rustin, who had begun his activism with the Scottsboro Case of 1936, when nine black boys were falsely convicted of rape (the Broadway musical based on them, “The Scottsboro Boys,” earned 12 Tony nominations in 2011).
King was physically struck down in New York in 1958, and in 1967, he was attacked again, this time by the press and other civil rights activists after he took a public stance against the Vietnam War. Before the Tet Offensive of January 1968, most Americans, black and white, supported the war. To place focus on the war was considered a divisive distraction with the Civil Rights Movement as well as further alienating to the federal government.
On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, King was the main speaker at an evening hosted by Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam at the influential Riverside Church in Morningside Heights. The audience of 3,000 gave him a standing ovation before he even spoke.
In the speech “Beyond Vietnam,” King described a war that was morally wrong and that drained money that should be dedicated to America’s war on poverty. He brought the war’s ironies close to home, stating, “We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
With this speech, King simultaneously became America’s most well-known anti-war protestor and the target of vehement criticism from the New York Times, Life, Time, Newsweek, and just about every other major publication, the New York Post excepted. But King did not waver. Within two weeks, on April 15, King led New York City’s largest anti-Vietnam demonstration as 100,000 protesters marched from Central Park to the United Nations.
In “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” the ominous speech King gave in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the night before he was slain, King recounted his stabbing in 1958. To reflect on his accomplishments since that near deadly event, he quoted a letter from a White Plains girl that he said he’d never forget: “Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School. While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing to you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”
For whatever reason Martin cherished this letter, he surely saw dark humor in the fact that, despite the bombing, firehoses, billy club beatings and threat of snipers, his life was also in his own hands, hanging in balance by a sneeze.
What King meant to another teenage girl in Memphis in 1968 is what inspired Hall, now just 30 years old, to write “Mountaintop.” As Hall has explained in interviews, her mother Carrie Mae grew up near King’s Memphis motel and though she wanted to attend his speech at Mason Temple on April 3, her own mother forbade it, fearing the church would be bombed. Hall’s mother was 15 at the time and not seeing King speak “was the biggest regret of her life,” says Hall. Naming the chambermaid character “Camae,” after her mother, is Hall’s way of letting her mother experience a moment with her hero, before his life is taken from his hands.
Want to learn more about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in New York? Check out the following resources:
- The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture features a large collection of African-American newspapers (available at the center and online) that have coverage of King’s many visits to New York City. The Center’s Manuscripts Archives and Rare Books Division (MARB) offers a vast assortment of correspondence and writings to and about Dr. King. The Art and Artifacts Division holds posters, flyers, and other memorabilia related to Dr. King’s speeches and rallies in New York City.
- Christopher Moore, special projects and research coordinator at the Schomburg Center, also recommended the following sources for details on Dr. King’s experiences in New York: “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr.” (Warner Books 1998); “Bearing the Cross” by David J. Garrow (William Morrow 1986); and “Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” (Hyperion Books for Children 2001).
- Research for this article also came from “Let the Trumpet Sound,” by Stephen B. Oates (Harper Perennial, second edition 1994) and “Civil Rights in New York City: From World War II to the Giuliani Era.” Edited by Clarence Taylor. Fordham University Press. April 2011