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At statue dedication, a call for racial cooperation

Dedicating a piece of artwork Monday at Nassau Community College to kick off Black History Month, history buffs and civic leaders called for more understanding between Long Island's African-Americans and Hispanics.

"We're two communities of color, so there's a natural affinity," said Angelo J. Rivera, a community activist who has worked in Hempstead and Harlem. But, he admitted, "We may not always understand each other."

Rivera spoke while greeting friends arriving at the dedication of a 6-foot-long brass sculpture chronicling the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.

Rivera was joined at the upbeat ceremony by African-American and white scholars, who spoke of the exhortations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for all people to work together.

"This is a dream come true," Marion Fleming, an English instructor at Nassau, said of the artwork.

The story of the sculpture started seven years ago, when Fleming attended a performance Rivera had arranged to teach Hispanics about black history. She was so impressed that she offered to help in future projects overseen by Rivera, who works with former inmates and others as they look for training and jobs.

Eventually, the pair and others commissioned the artwork from James Counts Sr., a postal worker who lived in Roosevelt and spent his free time sculpting. He died in 2005, four months after his work was unveiled at the college. It sat in a storage room until it was recently given a permanent place on a brightly lighted wall.

Rivera said he tells young Hispanics that African-Americans were trailblazers in civil rights, and all minorities benefit from turning points such as the Montgomery bus boycott. He and others reminded students in the audience Monday that the boycott started in 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white man. Lasting 13 months, it became a model of nonviolent resistance.

"We always worked toward the equality we deserved," said Hempstead Town Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby, who grew up in the South and traveled to Montgomery to participate in the boycott at the time.

She acknowledged that she's witnessed tensions between blacks and Hispanics on Long Island, in places including Hempstead, as the two groups vie for jobs and housing. "We need to learn that we've got to live together," she said.

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