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King’s memory, message linger 50 years after assassination

The anniversary comes at a time of heightened political divisiveness, and demonstrations over police shootings of unarmed black men.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at South Side High School in Rockville Centre on March 26, 1968, when he toured Long Island. He was killed April 4, 1968. Photo Credit: Newsday / Bill Senft

On the day 50 years ago that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Julius Pearse was driving alone when he heard the news.

Freeport’s first African-American police officer, then 34, pulled over and “I took my feelings out within the confines of a police car,” he recalled Tuesday.

“My reaction was anger, first of all, complete anger, and then I went into something I don’t usually do: I cried,” he said. “I didn’t bother talking to anybody about it, I wasn’t in the mood to talk to anybody.”

Fifty years later, Pearse and others who were alive then share the searing memory of when a 20th century icon was struck down April 4, 1968, by a bullet as he prepared to dine with friends. Some, like Pearse, mark that day and what it meant to themselves and the nation.

On Wednesday, he will be in the ceremonial chambers of the Nassau County executive and legislative office building in Mineola for a 6 p.m. event held by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration Committee of Nassau County, a county-affiliated group Pearse founded.

“The fact that he was assassinated 50 years ago, it is a solemn event for me,” said Pearse, 84, of Freeport.

King had been in Memphis in support of a strike by African-American sanitation workers and had increasingly associated civil rights with class and economic inequalities. The event in Mineola will therefore honor a number of longtime county workers who were members of the civil service union, said event organizers.

The anniversary comes at a time of heightened political divisiveness, demonstrations over police shootings of unarmed black men, and the emergence of widespread youth activism among both white, black and Latino students over the issue of gun violence. And while Pearse said he sees progress, “You’d have to be blind not to see the problems we’re having today.”

Rev. Calvin Butts, an activist Harlem clergyman and president of SUNY Old Westbury, said Long Island and America continue to evade moral challenges King raised a half-century ago.

Too many people today mouth platitudes about King, Butts said Tuesday, while accommodating many of the injustices he fought, including rampant neighborhood segregation, substandard schools, sharp income disparities, and other maladies that persist on Long Island. Butts said African-Americans have seen progress — in college attendance, in leadership of major corporations and businesses, and in the presidency of Barack Obama.

However, Butts said, “these are small achievements when compared to the masses of people — and now I’m speaking of all people, particularly poor white people, who do not have access to education because they can’t afford it, who do not have access to quality health care because they can’t afford it, who do not have access to quality housing because they can’t afford it.

“So we have quite a battle in front of us against the forces of greed and war and exploitation and hatred and bigotry. . . . when I think of him I’m encouraged by his life, by his sacrifice of that life.”

To commemorate the anniversary of King’s death, the Diocese of Rockville Centre has scheduled a special prayer service Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in the Cathedral of Saint Agnes. It will feature prayer, witness talks, a homily preached by Bishop John Barres and the Sr. Thea Bowman Mass Gospel Choir.

Of his homily, Barres said, “Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King’s death, St. Agnes Cathedral and all the parishes on Long Island shake with joy as we reflect on Dr. King’s dream and our Catholic baptismal responsibility to stand up against racism and to be instruments of the Divine Mercy in promoting racial harmony and unity in the human family at this critical time in history.”

Now, as student and black activism rises to a level not seen since the 1960s, advocates for change say King’s example continues to inspire 50 years after his death.

Tom Malanga, a white gay rights activist who helped organize the defunct Empire State Pride Agenda, said King’s nonviolent advocacy for human dignity has encouraged people from other marginalized groups to demand change.

“Dr. King set an example toward a pragmatic approach to creating change, about organizing and accepting progress in steps,” said Malanga, of Central Islip. “That’s applicable to the LGBT community, just as it was for the civil rights movement.”

Hempstead civil rights attorney Fred Brewington, who last year won a decadelong lawsuit asserting that predominantly white Garden City used zoning laws to keep minority residents out, said King’s assassination made him determined to pursue racial justice.

Brewington said he is now encouraged by the multiracial activism of students after the Feb. 14 shooting that killed 17 people at a school in Parkland, Florida.

“I think the memory of Dr. King is a spark for a new form of activism emerging among our young people who see him as an example they can springboard from,” Brewington said. “The benefit of Dr. King’s legacy is as long as there are people who understood what he fought for and are here to tell the story, there is still hope on the horizon.”

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