The mayor delivered his address at the city's 30th annual interfaith breakfast honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and at a time when Emanuel has been fighting for his political life amid high-profile police shootings of young black men.
Activists had called on black officials and clergy to boycott the event. About two dozen protesters stood outside the Hyatt hotel where the mayor spoke, yelling at those who went in.
"Shame on you!" they shouted.
The tension inside was palpable as the 600 to 700 guests dined on cheddar cheese omelets, cantaloupe, chicken sausage and chilled orange juice.
The crowd included a who's who of the city's elite: Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White and Chicago Alderman Michelle Harris, along with dozens of church and community leaders and other aldermen.
When Dorothy Tillman, a former alderman and well-respected city figure, took to the stage and reflected on King's legacy, a woman in the crowd stood and shouted, "Sixteen shots and a cover-up!"
Tillman kept speaking, but it was nearly impossible to hear her. "Sixteen shots," the woman screeched. "Sixteen shots!!!"
The chant -- the rallying cry for Laquan McDonald, the black teen shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer -- echoed across the banquet hall.
Again. And again. And again.
The woman screamed and fell to the floor as she was escorted out. Her shriek was so loud it reverberated throughout the room.
Eyebrows raised. Forks clanked plates. Some murmured: If that's the start of this event, what's going to happen when the mayor takes the stage?
There were tributes to King and unity prayers. The recent police controversies could not be avoided.
In her prayer, the Rev. Neichelle Guidry, an associate youth pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ, rattled off the names of several residents killed by police in high-profile cases, from Rekia Boyd to Cedrick Chatman to Laquan McDonald.
"Let justice roll. Roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream," Guidry said.
Then it happened. Again. A man stood and shouted, "Let justice roll." The room fell silent.
"Sixteen shots and a cover-up," he said, repeatedly. "No justice, no peace."
Music started up and soon Rodrick Dixon had everyone on their feet with a stirring rendition of "The Impossible Dream."
"Keep on dreaming," Dixon told the crowd to wild applause.
Within minutes, it was time for the mayor.
Many scanned the crowd. No one needed to say anything: There seemed to be a collective feel of "Here we go, this is going to be interesting."
Known for his savvy leadership and eloquent speeches, Emanuel delivered.
He was there to bestow the city's Champion of Freedom Award on the Rev. B. Herbert Martin Sr., but the mayor took the opportunity to touch on the issues that have dogged him in recent months. Martin serves as the mayor's minister.
Invoking the life lessons of King, Emanuel said, "There is a lesson here for all of us -- and a hard lesson and the hard truths that face this city. Because we will not be the city we need to be, and can be, unless we restore trust between our police and our communities and provide opportunities for all Chicagoans."
There were no shouts of protest. Just loud applause. The image of King stared down from two big screens on both sides of the stage.
"To deal with the violence that claims lives on our streets -- mostly the lives of young African-American men -- we also have to root out the cancer of police abuse."
Many nodded their heads. Some said, "Amen." Others clapped.
To make communities safer, the mayor said, "demands trust between the community and the police. And when there's no trust, there is no safety."
"We have to be honest with ourselves as we confront this challenge head-on," Emanuel said. "Although it will be long and painful, we will be a better city because we confronted the hard truths, did the difficult things to get us to a better place where trust is the foundation of our city. And we will do it by confronting it completely, comprehensively and constructively."
When it came time for Martin to accept his award, the stalwart for civil rights said the mayoral breakfast has always celebrated the city's diversity and King's legacy.
"I cannot imagine what configuration of the heavenlies that got some of us on the outside boycotting and the others on the inside praying for peace and justice and keeping the legacy of King alive."
A most impressive part of King's legacy, Martin noted, was "his capacity to deal with both sides."
To boycott this event, he said, would "betray the sacrifices of our ancestors." His voice boomed.
"To boycott this breakfast is to trample on the graves of our foremothers and forefathers!"
Barbara Sellers, who has attended the event for the last 15 years, called the breakfast "beautiful." She said she considered boycotting but decided to attend to celebrate King's legacy.
"Glad I came," she said.
Tomi Johnson said it was a "no brainer" to attend.
"It had nothing to do with the shootings, the police and the mayor," said Johnson.
While she said she empathized with the protesters and understood their frustrations, she didn't agree with their tactics to disrupt the event.
"It was inappropriate this day," she said.
The event ended with the mayor and other officials on stage, leading the crowd in singing "We Shall Overcome."
As Emanuel walked offstage, members of the news media pressed him for more. "I want to repeat: This is not about me. It's about Dr. King and his life and his life's work," he said.
The mayor then exited behind a black curtain.