Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker, known for changing the fortunes of his struggling city, Thursday urged Buffalo-area residents to vigorously pursue a similar transformation from the bottom up, if necessary.
The 41-year-old Democrat and 36th mayor of New Jersey's largest city was the guest speaker for the 35th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration in the Mainstage Theatre in the Center for the Arts on the University at Buffalo North Campus. Booker's appearance was part of UB's Distinguished Speakers Series.
"We were born to be special. King talked about this. He made speeches about this, to recognize your dignity and divinity within yourself and promote that so that you may have the strength and ability to see that dignity and divinity in other people," he said.
A Yale Law School graduate and Rhodes Scholar, Booker, in 1998, took what some consider the extraordinary step of taking up residence in the Brick Towers, a troubled housing complex in Newark's Central Ward, where he helped tenants organize to improve conditions.
"Newark is an incredible city, like Buffalo," Booker said. "I wanted to answer the call from [comedian] Chris Rock, that great poet, who said, 'Why is the most violent street in every city named for the man [King] who stood for nonviolence? "
"I moved to Martin Luther King Boulevard and I was blown away. I wanted to move into an area that was in struggle. I wanted to be a part of making the name for that street not simply a street sign but evidence to us all and the spirit that was there," he added.
Booker was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up in the predominantly white, affluent town of Harrington Park in Bergen County, N.J. His parents, Cary and Carolyn, were the first African-American executives at IBM. Booker spoke of how they shaped his outlook.
"My dad used to say: 'Boy, you were born on third base. You did not hit a triple. You were given opportunities that you cannot take for granted,' " said Booker, alluding to the struggles of civil rights-era pioneers, like King, that laid the path for him and those of his generation.
"I get invited to give Martin Luther King speeches from time to time, and then I confess something that makes some people a little upset with me, which is the fact that I was not alive when Martin Luther King was alive," he said.
"We take somebody like Martin Luther King, and we homogenize him, we sanitize him and we make him palatable for all, but he wasn't that. He was a figure that challenged, a figure that pressed and pushed, a figure that inspired but was not about making people feel comfortable," he added.