As Marge Rogatz rode in a car in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s slow-rolling motorcade 45 years ago on Long Island, tears welled in her eyes as young people surged into the street to greet the civil rights leader.
She can still vividly recall the exuberance in their faces, particularly in Lakeview. The African-American community there had organized to fight for better education for black students in the Malverne district.
"This was such an important affirmation of who they were and what they were thinking and what they were doing," said Rogatz, who now heads an affordable-housing group based in Roslyn Heights called Community Advocates.
The date was May 12, 1965, and Rogatz was in the Long Island chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, which had organized King's tour through Lakeview, Inwood, Long Beach, Rockville Centre and Hempstead. It was one of several trips King made to Long Island throughout the 1960s to garner support for civil rights and to raise money.
He spoke at churches, schools and synagogues here. He gave a commencement address, and even went for a bike ride on Fire Island. King's final appearance here was two weeks before his assassination in 1968. Sometimes his hosts were groups such as CORE, rooted in the black community. Other times, as with the Great Neck Committee for Human Rights, which planned a 1962 rally, his hosts were from largely white communities.
"There were many progressive whites who wanted to be part of that movement," said Donald Shaffer, a founder of the Great Neck Committee who helped plan the rally. They wanted to support the movement through fundraising, but also through giving "time and energy," said Shaffer, a retired lawyer now living in Manhattan.
During King's 1965 tour, he asked to see living conditions among black people on the Island. Mel Jackson of Hempstead, now president of the Leadership Training Institute, helped show King areas of substandard housing in Hempstead. He said King saw homes in which "raw sewage seeped up into the floor." And in Rockville Centre, King saw where local activists said blacks were being pushed out by urban renewal.
"It wasn't renewing anything. It was tearing down stuff and making people homeless," said Jackson, who was active in the Hempstead NAACP.
Newsday reported that crowds of 500 to 800 people greeted him at every stop. King climbed out of his car and made brief speeches. King's Long Island tour culminated that night in a speech at the old Island Garden Arena in West Hempstead, which drew about 5,000 people. Joyce McCray was there that night and at a daytime rally in Lakeview along Woodfield Road.
"He was in a car moving very, very slow. He had stopped to speak to people, and because I was a member of the organization [Lakeview NAACP], they knew me and I was allowed to shake his hand," McCray recalled.
It was a brief encounter filled with great meaning.
"I would say it was thrilling to be able to see somebody who was so dedicated . . . We were just glad to see him in the community of black people who had to struggle."
In 1965 King was perhaps at the height of his influence, fresh off receiving the Nobel Peace Prize the previous December and nearing the successful passage of the Voting Rights Act. The Civil Rights Act had passed the year before.
King returned to Long Island June 13, 1965, to deliver Hofstra University's commencement address. The enthusiastic crowd of about 7,000 had only about a dozen hecklers, from the Ad Hoc Committee to Expose Communist Infiltration of the Civil Rights Movement.
"It was one of the first times he highlighted what he called the triple evils: the connections between racism, poverty and war," said longtime Hofstra history Professor Michael D'Innocenzo, who was at the speech.
D'Innocenzo said Hofstra was lucky to get King, citing his close relationship with Harry H. Wachtel, a Long Islander who was one of King's chief attorneys, close friend and adviser. Wachtel, who died in 1997, was also a friend of Hofstra trustee Bernard Fixler. D'Innocenzo said Fixler had helped raise money to pay for the travel of King's entourage to Oslo, Norway, for the Nobel.
D'Innocenzo, now the Harry H. Wachtel Distinguished Professor for the study of nonviolent social change, regularly teaches a course on King and the civil rights movement. He said King had no problems with the hecklers.
"King remained, as he often did, unflappable, " he said.
Wachtel's son, Manhattan attorney William Wachtel, said King visited the family's Great Neck home often. One September day in 1967, King also visited them at their Fire Island summer home. Then 12, William Wachtel bicycled down to the ferry dock to meet him. He offered to carry King's suitcase, and King asked if he could ride the boy's bike.
"On the one hand, he was larger than life. But at the same time he was as personable as possible," said Wachtel, who founded the Drum Major Institute of Public Policy to carry on the legacy of his father and King. "He even taught me to shoot pool . . . The ability to be larger than life, and to think like a leader, and at the same time relate to the most common or simple or young person is really part of the magic that he brought to bear."