Fifty years ago today an assassin’s bullet ended the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On April 4th, 1968 the nation lost a visionary leader who had been an inspirational advocate for each of the four freedoms. His efforts led the former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to comment that King had a “spiritual quality which has made him the leader of non violence in this country.” (To read more about the relationship between King and Eleanor click here.)
Additionally, the idea to create FDR Four Freedoms Park itself was born out of an attempt to further the legacy of Dr. King.
On the night of his tragic death, many feared the worst. Would grief understandably turn to anger? Would there be rioting and outbreaks of violence? Memories of the Harlem Riots from four years ago undoubtedly ran though New Yorker's minds as they struggled to predict what was about to happen and how best to respond.
Famously, Mayor John Lindsay rushed to Harlem and walked through the packed streets. Lindsay attempted to comfort the grief stricken and talk with community leaders, such as a young assemblyman named Charlie Rangel. Rangel later commented, "I remember so well walking with who I thought was a pretty courageous guy. Neither he nor I and so many of his staff had any idea where this was going to take us.” Riots broke out across the country, including in nearby Newark, but not in New York City. Sole credit for this cannot be given to Lindsay—each individual mourner in the community made their own decisions about how to respond. But still, as the Daily News reported in yesterday’s column on the anniversary of King’s death, “While there are surely many reasons — political and economic — to explain the absence of widespread unrest, many credit the city’s relative calm to what transpired on the streets of Harlem in those first few hours after the nation learned it had lost King.”
The death of King and its aftermath intensified Lindsay’s determination to improve the quality of life for racial minorities in New York City. One of the mayor’s major goals was to increase the amount of affordable housing units. This led his administration to take a hard look at the underutilized strip of land between Manhattan and Queens in the East River, then known as Welfare Island. The city set a goal of creating affordable housing for over 20,000 New Yorkers, with Welfare Island being the celebrated centerpiece of the initiative. By 1973 the plan was in motion, and Mayor Lindsay journeyed out to Welfare Island with approximately 750 other people to highlight the project and rename the island in honor of one of New York’s most beloved former presidents. Now known as Roosevelt Island, plans were also made to create the city’s first memorial to Franklin Roosevelt located on the island. Due to many reasons — again political and economic — it would take until 2012 for that part of the plan to see completion.
Today, the Park is dedicated to promoting the four freedoms for everyone in the world, regardless of race, religion, creed, or birthplace. When New York City students visit the Park for one of our education programs we look at the four freedoms both historically and in a twenty-first century context. When these young New Yorkers are asked who they think is a good example of a champion of the four freedoms besides FDR, Martin Luther King is always one of the top responses. Older students frequently relate freedom from want to King’s often overlooked stance on economic issues. As we all reflect today on the legacy of Dr. King, we here at FDR Four Freedoms Park are dedicated to furthering the vision of the future that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life for.