NEW YORK — The life of Martin Luther King Jr. was remembered across New York City on Monday, the annual commemorations taking on added meaning at a time of increased focus on race relations in the nation's largest city.
Six months after Eric Garner, who is black, died in a white police officer's chokehold, protests and speeches invoking his name provided a backdrop for the King commemorations.
Mayor Bill de Blasio supported the demonstrations that followed a Staten Island grand jury's decision not to indict the officer, fracturing his relationship with the city's police unions. He vowed that New York would emerge from the cauldron a more unified city.
"We will move forward as a city. We will move forward to deeper respect for all," said de Blasio at the annual MLK Day event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the city's largest tribute to the slain civil rights leader. "We will move toward a true respect between police and community."
Facing sinking poll numbers and some internal strife, police union leaders have begun to mute their criticism of the mayor for fostering an anti-NYPD atmosphere they claim led to the ambush killings of two officers last month. De Blasio seized a chance Monday to link the Garner demonstrations to King's own support of peaceful protests "to create a common cause for all."
He also made his first appearance with the Rev. Al Sharpton since the grand jury decision. Sharpton, who has led many of the Garner protests and is often a fierce police critic, has been a flashpoint in the mayor's tense relations with police, but de Blasio did not hesitate to hug the civil rights leader as the media's cameras clicked.
"Unlike the popular view, Bill de Blasio and I don't agree on everything," Sharpton said at an afternoon gathering at the Harlem headquarters of his National Action Network. "We didn't want a flunky. We wanted a mayor — and we got a mayor — that would talk to us and respect us."
The commemoration at the Brooklyn Academy of Music hours earlier was punctuated with songs, including civil rights-era staples like "Life Every Voice," and speeches from Dr. Cornel West, City Council Speaker Melissa-Mark Viverito and Sen. Charles Schumer.
King's "words and deeds accomplished nothing less than the elevation of the entire human race," said Schumer.
A smaller, but no less powerful, remembrance took place on the streets of Harlem, as a group of about 100 middle school students, teachers and parents from Manhattan Country School sang "We Shall Overcome" as they marched through the city streets. A common refrain: More work needs to be done to achieve equality for all races.
"Especially this year, people need to understand his dream has not come true," said student Samori Coates, 14. "And you can't just stop and sit down on this day and say, 'Wow, look how far we've come.'"
Garner-related demonstrations were set for several locations across the city, including the Staten Island street corner where he died.
Associated Press writer Meghan Barr contributed to this report. Contact the author on Twitter @JonLemire