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Photo by Nat Valentine
By Rich Bockmann

Income inequality was the term on everyone’s tongue at the United Negro College Fund’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast in Queens Village Monday, when speakers invoked the civil rights leader’s embrace of economic justice that defined the latter part of his life.

Keynote speaker the Rev. Michael Walrond, pastor of Harlem’s First Corinthian Baptist Church, said King’s human rights struggle was one against the inequalities inherent in capitalism.

“I speak about poverty this morning because if you know anything about Dr. King, you know toward the end of his life he made a dramatic shift,” he told a crowd of several hundred at the Greater New York Inter-Alumni Council of UNCF’s 24th annual awards breakfast at Antun’s in Queens Village. “He realized that although the fight for civil rights for African Americans was necessary, he understood the parochial nature of that struggle.”

“He realized in many ways that our country uses racism as smoke and mirrors,” he continued. “The real issue in our country is to deal with the economics that helped frame this country, so that you can’t really be a fighter for justice and not talk about how the insanity and dysfunctionalism of capitalism reinforces poverty, and in case you do not know you, cannot have capitalism unless you have poverty.”

Toward the end of his life, King adopted a political theory that decried materialism and economic exploitation that was viewed even by supporters as radical, but with the Occupy Wall Street movement and the success of recent progressive political campaigns, the idea is becoming more mainstream.

Walrond called King a “messianic-political-social figure” and said the day commemorating his legacy has been lost to complacency.

“I learned a long time ago that if you want to really kill the legacy, the dream of a visionary like Dr. King, the quickest way to do that is to memorialize his legacy, but never continue the journey of his work,” he said. “So we have to be hesitant that in these moments that we are not so overwhelmed with the memory that we do not participate in the legacy.”

Walrond is gearing up to challenge U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-Manhattan) for his long-held congressional seat, and his speech veered toward the political.

“In these days that we are seeing even right now, I don’t have to rehearse what is happening in our current social context,” he said. “We are seeing a mean-spiritedness that is overtaking Washington politics. We are seeing what happens when ideological purists rule the day. We are witnessing a decline in decency because now there are persons who become oppositional to policies simply because they do not like the messenger.”

UNCF is gearing up for its 70th anniversary gala March 6 at the Hilton New York.

New York’s U.S. senators, Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, also stopped by Antun’s to speak about King.

Repeating King’s quote that “only when it is dark enough can you see the stars,” Gillibrand took the opportunity to plug President Barack Obama’s plan for universal pre-kindergarten.

“We know how important universal pre-K would be for the future of this country,” she said. “It is wrong that a 5-year-old should show up at kindergarten and not have the basic early childhood education that her more affluent peers have been given.”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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