The Rev. Andy C. Lewter Sr. told hundreds of people Monday about one of the most important calls of his life -- when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. telephoned nearly 50 years ago and asked him to join marchers seeking voting rights for blacks in Alabama and across the Deep South.
"Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called me long-distance and said to me, as usual, 'Bruh.' That's how he called me, 'Bruh,' " Lewter, 85, recounted to about 500 people at Hollywood Full Gospel Baptist Cathedral's ninth annual commemoration of the slain civil rights leader on the federal holiday honoring him.
"He said, 'I need you in Selma, Alabama,' " said Lewter, emeritus pastor of the Amityville church who is known affectionately as "Daddy Lewter."
So he was there, part of a multiracial crowd, many of them clergy, lined up in the Alabama city in March 1965: Women on the inside column and men on the outside in anticipation of an attack by police and locals.
A few days earlier, the demonstrators' first attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way to the state capitol in Montgomery ended abruptly when police used tear gas and beat many marchers with clubs.
That day became known as "Bloody Sunday."
On this second try, Lewter recalled, the marchers faced "white, 18-year-old men deputized with guns, trained dogs, deputized policemen with badges [that] carried blinding-eyed power, if need be, to attack us on the spot."
Though King turned the crowd around on the second march and returned to a local church, avoiding the potential for confrontation, Lewter said the experience for him marked "the beginning of unity and concern among people of all colors" over what was happening in Selma.
The church's Leadership Awards Breakfast recognized the 50th anniversary of the Selma voter registration campaign and the activism of the elder Lewter. It was held at the Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury.
Lewter's son, Bishop Andy C. Lewter, the current senior pastor of the cathedral, called his father the "sole survivor of Selma on Long Island."
The last of the three Selma-to-Montgomery marches was successful and was among events that propelled passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In rolling back a key provision of the act last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that "things have changed dramatically since 1965."
Other speakers Monday, while noting progress in race relations over the past half-century, said King's vision of equality for all is not yet realized.
"We wouldn't be here in this room today if the roots of discrimination, bias, violence and hate did not remain hidden beneath the surface of American life," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
"But five decades after he stood in front of Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C., and declared that 'I have a dream,' instilling us with great hope and pride and promise and direction for the future, Dr. King's day of remembrance has to be a solemn occasion. A day of deep reflection, a day where we recognize how far we've come and a day where we also recognize how far we have to go," he said.
Suffolk County Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) cited challenges, such as underperforming schools in some minority communities, economic disparities and "injustices in our criminal justice system" as ongoing struggles that must be overcome.
Gregory, the first African-American to be presiding officer of the county legislature, said it is important for young people to "understand the struggles that our forefathers and our parents and our community faced years and decades ago, and we still face some of those similar challenges."