January 20, 2020
A Case of Local Injustice Highlights the Importance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. left an indelible mark on our nation’s history, and on a day when we commemorate the legacy of this great man, we feel moved to share a solemn reminder of the oppression and violence he dedicated his life to resisting.
NoMad was not always the thriving, artistic neighborhood it is today. At the turn of the century, much of the area was part of the Tenderloin — New York’s former red-light district, home to large populations of Irish migrants and black Southern communities. A single episode of violence ignited racial tensions and sparked New York’s race riots, a tragedy that too often goes unremembered.
In 1900, an undercover white police officer accused May Enoch, a young black woman, of soliciting outside of a residence. After her boyfriend Arthur Harris leaped to her defense, a brief skirmish ultimately resulted in Officer Robert Thorpe’s death. The young couple fled the scene, fearing the harsh consequences they would face. But it is unlikely they could have imagined the chaos that would follow this fatal misunderstanding.
The incident sparked existing hostilities between the Irish and black communities living in the area. Over a month of riots struck the neighborhood, as black men and women were attacked by white street gangs.
As symptomatic of the times, the black rioters were disproportionately arrested by police and often subjected to brutal treatment out of vengeance for the deceased officer. City leaders failed to come to their aid, and the justice system remained indifferent.
Seeing no other resort, the black community eventually came together to form the Citizens Protective League, hoping to restore peace in the neighborhood and defend themselves against the white gangs and hostile police force. Tragically, the police never faced legal actions for their involvement in the riots, despite the fact that the corrupt hand of Tammany Hall and institutionalized bigotry were recognized by the press at the time.
This local story is an all too familiar episode in our country’s difficult history. At a time when hatred is persistently visible in the world around us and the threat of violence looms large, we honor Dr. King’s tireless struggle for peace and resistance against these divisive forces. We can only hope his legacy serves as a source of continued inspiration as we work for a united and inclusive community.