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King’s Rockville Centre visit still resonates after 50 years

Community activists Catherine Pucciarelli and Ernestine Small, now both in their 80s, were in the audience on March 26, 1968.

Rockville Centre residents Catherine Pucciarelli and Ernestine Small talk about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic visit to South Side High School in 1968.  (Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa)

Nearly 50 years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stepped onto the auditorium stage of the middle school in Rockville Centre.

A capacity crowd rose in a standing ovation for the civil rights leader, who would be assassinated just over a week later in Memphis.

He was on a speaking tour, swinging through the New York City area to publicize a planned Poor People’s March on Washington and its campaign against poverty and injustice. On that early spring afternoon, March 26, 1968, hundreds of black and white Long Islanders — students, activists and people curious about a famous man — fell silent as the public figure they’d seen on the news marching, protesting and addressing huge crowds spoke in the flesh, from the heart.

“My memory of it was that he was spellbinding,” said Catherine Pucciarelli, 82, then a 33-year-old mother of four. “In my mind’s eye, I can still . . . see him up there at the podium speaking,” she said. “He wasn’t speaking from an agenda that he was trying to put across, he was speaking from his heart, from what he truly believed; it was rare in that time and I guess it’s rare now.”

He spoke without notes, she said, about race relations, poverty, the injustice of the Vietnam War and the work that local communities were doing in the cause of civil rights. Pucciarelli, of Rockville Centre, was already active in the local chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign and would later become the first woman elected to the village board.

“I can truly say it was a thrilling experience,” she said. “His words were not harsh or blaming anyone — they were asking all people to come together and accept one another. That was the most powerful thing.”

Also there that day was Ernestine Small, 81, part of the village’s African-American community who helped fill the auditorium’s racially mixed audience. Years later, she recalled watching King from the left side of the auditorium: “It was a great experience,” she said. “He was my own inspiration.”

She retired in 2009 after more than 34 years working for the village’s Economic Opportunity Council, and lives in a senior citizen complex in Uniondale, where her walls are adorned with plaques commemorating her work in anti-poverty programs. A bas-relief of King’s face is on one plaque from the EOC, which honored her with its Martin Luther King Jr. Living the Dream award.

For many years, she lived in Rockville Centre Housing Authority homes built in the old West End neighborhood where she grew up. It was largely inhabited by African-Americans before it was torn down in a controversial urban renewal that she calls “Negro removal.”

Apartment buildings now stand on the block where she lived as a child, said Small, the daughter of a bank caretaker and a domestic who came from the South in search of a better life.

“Our life was good,” she recalled recently. “I came out of a working family. My father had a beautiful garden and all he raised, my mother canned and cooked so we had plenty.” Her community offered an all-African American Girls Scout troop and a 4-H Club, and she was active in her church, St. Paul AME on Randall Avenue. “I had the love and support of my community and my church,” she said.

There were problems, too, including what the community considered an inferior elementary school. Busing offered opportunities for the black children; however, she said some found it hard to be a poor minority in the largely well-off and white high school.

“It was a hit for us, coming out of a poor neighborhood going to a rich school,” Small recalled, adding some of the black students dropped out because of the pressures. “But some of the people embraced us and we got along.”

Her first foray into political activism came as a teenager, she said, as the community sought scatter-site housing for low-income families. That approach fell before the bulldozers of the village’s urban renewal plan in the late 1950s and 1960s, which demolished both deteriorated rental housing and houses maintained by black homeowners who afterward bought homes in neighboring areas such as Lakeview and Hempstead.

The renewal plan included commercial and industrial buildings, apartments, and construction of the low-income housing in which she later raised two children. She served as a tenant representative on the Housing Authority board, Small said.

In her apartment now the images of King and former President Barack Obama remind her of both the struggles and accomplishments of the civil rights movement, even as she worries about the current political climate. Of the man who came to speak that day 50 years ago, she said, “His legacy will continue to live on.”

Pucciarelli, who still lives in her Rockville Centre home, recalls with affection the local black leaders she worked with on civil rights, particularly Lucille Smith, a member of the EOC board. As members of the Rockville Centre chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign, an affiliate of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Pucciarelli and her late husband Joseph helped organize a 1969 musical tribute to King after his April 4, 1968, assassination, called “Many Faces of America.” It was held in the auditorium where King spoke exactly one year before.

She said she expected more from King’s visit to her village, where civil rights protests were soon overtaken by controversy over the Vietnam War. “What I would have hoped would have been taken away,” she said, is that “we are all the same, we are all human beings with the same desires and needs and we should be able to get along.”

She sees advancement in her own children and grandchildren, who work and socialize with African-Americans without seeing it as something exceptional.

“I think we’ve made progress but it’s a slow, grinding process,” she said. “I remain hopeful. I’ve got that optimistic gene.”

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