Long Islanders filled sidewalks, churches and community centers Monday to celebrate the life and legacy of one of the nation’s greatest civil rights icons: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The ceremonies, which included breakfasts, prayer services, parades and luncheons, gave residents and local officials a chance to share their thoughts on King’s importance to the history of humankind and consider how to continue on the revered activist’s path.
One such celebration took place at the Long Beach Martin Luther King Center. After a commemorative march of about a mile, several hundred people came together to dance; listen to speakers, live music and spoken word; and eat lunch.
“It’s not really a holiday to me,” said Jacquetta Odom, who has lived in Long Beach for more than 45 years. “It’s much more serious than that. It’s celebrating life going forward.”
Odom, who was chairwoman of the center’s board of directors during its first Martin Luther King celebration in 1981 — well before the national holiday in recognition of his birthday took effect in January 1986 — feels the day is both a happy and a sad time.
The civil rights movement is “going backwards today,” she said, though one positive is the passion of young people to continue making progress.
“Young people are rising up,” she said. “There is hope at the end of the tunnel.”
Travis Nelson, the event’s keynote speaker, is one of those young people.
The Hempstead High School senior, who recently received a full four-year scholarship to Columbia University through the nonprofit QuestBridge, spoke of King’s historical importance, as well as how he is “tired of going to funerals for lives that haven’t been lived.”
“The sky is not the limit,” Nelson said of the current civil rights climate. “It should only be the direction.”
Among those at the center was Norris Knight, 68, of Long Beach, who said he worked on King’s staff for several years as a teenager in Georgia before moving to New York in the late 1960s. His tasks at the time, he said, consisted mostly of registering voters and spreading the message of the need for change.
Knight recalled walking with other demonstrators in a 54-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery in 1965. Civil rights activists started three marches in February and March of that year from Selma, though the participants actually made it to the state Capitol building only on the final trek.
“He was charismatic,” Knight said of King. “Just listening to him speak would make you move without even realizing you were moving.”
Knight added, “Sometimes you would get up in the morning and pray because you didn’t know if you would come home. There’s been lots of progress, but there’s still a lot that needs to be done.”
In Uniondale, more than 300 people attended a luncheon at the Long Island Marriott to celebrate the national holiday.
The 32nd annual event, sponsored by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration Committee of Nassau County, awarded scholarships to four local high school seniors, winners of an essay contest on the impact of King’s legacy on their personal lives.
Four members of the community also were honored for their civil involvement, service and activism.
“May our focus be on our communities and our nation, that we will keep the spirit of building our neighborhoods, our communities and our country on strong pillars of interethnic respect, trust, accord and harmony,” said Dr. Isma H. Chaudhry, president of the Islamic Center of Long Island.
Chaudhry, a physician and interfaith activist, gave the opening remarks to a mostly African-American audience that included representatives of Muslim, Jewish and Asian groups.
The celebration was the last under the committee’s founder and president, Julius O. Pearse, who announced his resignation.
Pearse, 83, was the first African-American police officer in the village of Freeport in 1962. He said he remembers the marches for civil rights, and being the target of discrimination, the “white flight” from some Nassau County communities and the struggle to have King’s birthday recognized as a federal holiday.
“It wasn’t easy,” Pearse said. “The fact that you have the day off and have fun today — it wasn’t easy.”