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Why Chicago's black pastors boycotted an MLK day breakfast

For more than 30 years, the mayor of Chicago has held an annual breakfast honoring the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. This year, the event became a flashpoint for area protesters.

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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (2nd from l.) and Rev. B. Herbert Martin say a prayer during the annual breakfast honoring Martin Luther King Jr. at a Chicago hotel Friday. Protesters, angry over Chicago police shootings, tried to disrupt the breakfast.

Brian Jackson/Chicago Sun-Times/AP

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Every year, Chicago hosts an Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast. This year, a group of black pastors boycotted the event in protest of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's handling of police killings.

The breakfast is a tradition started by Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, in honor of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

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Many of the protesters felt that their boycott was in harmony with Dr. King’s life and works. King was a staunch supporter of peaceful protest who was well known for his role in the African-American civil rights movement.

The pastors involved were quick to say that their opposition applied specifically to the current mayor.

"This boycott is not in opposition to Harold Washington nor Martin Luther King Jr.," one boycotter, Bishop Edgar Mullins, told Reuters. "This boycott stands for the very cause that they stood for, it was through protesting that achievement was made. To sit by and do nothing is to endorse what is going on.”

Rev. Matthew Ross did attend the breakfast, but he interrupted the proceedings when he stood up and began to chant “16 shots and a cover-up.” The words of his chant referenced the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald. Reverend Ross was escorted out of the hall by security.

For his part, Mayor Emanuel emphasized the importance of the breakfast apart from any issues with his own leadership.

“The Martin Luther King mayoral breakfast is not about me, it's about Dr. King and the life that he led and his life's work," Emanuel said. "And we have a lot of work ahead of us, as a city, state and country, being consistent with his life's work of economic and social justice."

A crowd of protesters outside the Hyatt Hotel called for Emanuel’s resignation. The crowd contained not only religious leaders who boycotted the breakfast, but also concerned citizens who cite a rash of police killings over the last several years as evidence of Emanuel’s mismanagement. Many of the dead were young black men.

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Emanuel fired the Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy in December, in response to community outrage. Emanuel praised McCarthy’s leadership, but said the the chief had "become an issue, rather than dealing with the issue, and a distraction.”

The Federal Department of Justice launched a probe into the Chicago Police Department in response to the killings. Emanuel has said that he hopes the investigation can help Chicago create a stronger, better police department.

Protest in the last two months has centered around the 2013 killing of Cedrick Chatman and the 2014 killing of Laquan McDonald, both young black teenagers. On Thursday, a judge ordered Chicago to release video footage of Chatman’s killing.

Despite tensions in the community, many black leaders chose to attend the breakfast anyway. It was the right thing to do, they said, to honor King’s legacy.

This report contains material from Reuters.