The impending inauguration of the country's first African-American president lent a triumphant and emotional resonance to the celebration Monday of The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. The civil rights leader had famously proclaimed that "we, as a people, will get to the promised land." For many, the holiday brought a sweet taste of promise fulfilled.
"Victory is mine," yelled a man through a bullhorn in a crowd of young and old, black and white, streaming into the Long Beach Martin Luther King Center to mark a day that this year seemed especially poignant.
"The dream lives," said Tiffany Streeter, 26, wearing a T-shirt depicting King and president-elect Barack Obama. "We made history and succeeded in making history. . . . Yes, we can."
A crowd of more than 100 rose amid thunderous applause when speaker Michelle Hall, a WGBB/1240 AM personality, noted that King had predicted an African-American president. "We're right on the eve of that today," she said. "We have a lot to celebrate, don't we?"
Children read poems, teens step-danced, keynoter Mark Beavers, pastor of Soul Stirring Church of God in Christ in Island Park, urged the crowd to nurture the young. Myrnissa Stone, executive director of the center, celebrated King's sacrifice - made, she said, "so that we all could be here today."
Outside, among messages on a bulletin board entitled "They Have a Dream," a child wrote: "I will become the second black president of the U.S."
Monday, Linda Valdez was debating with her son Robert, 11, whether to catch a 5:40 a.m. train to Washington, D.C., or watch Tuesday's inauguration with a crowd in Huntington. They were at the Dix Hills branch of the Half Hollow Hills Community Library, waiting for the start of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day presentation by the children of the Mother's Club of Wheatley Heights.
"I'm feeling extremely overwhelmed," said Valdez, a Family Court children's advocate. "I'm thinking not only about myself but about my grandmother. She's 88 and she voted for the first time this year."
As the program began, Robert watched intently as children enacted the story of civil rights heroine Rosa Parks, recited the stirring oratory of King, and of Obama, and recounted their own dreams: "I have a dream: no white people, no black people, just people," said Synclair Taylor, age 6.
Community activist Sandy Thomas recalled the night in 1964 when, as a college freshman and activist, she slept with other demonstrators in front of the White House. Later, she said, "I'm hysterical. I've been watching television and crying all week.
"Young people stood up with Martin Luther King, and now with Barack Obama, and we're going to have change in America and in the world."
As a video juxtaposed images of King and Obama, Valdez wiped her eyes. Afterward, she said, "I've made my decision: We're going to Washington. There's no other place to be."
Although he backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president, Nassau Executive Thomas Suozzi said yesterday Barack Obama's inauguration "was meant to happen" on the day after the celebration of King's birthday.
"We, too, have been in the desert 40 years," Suozzi told about 200 people at the 24th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Awards Luncheon at the Marriott Hotel in Uniondale, a reference to the biblical account of Moses' 40 years in the desert before Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan.
"Now, we're in the promised land. But like Joshua, we've got a lot of work yet to be done," he said, noting the need for people to "step up and serve" to make the world better.
Longtime civil rights activist Marge Rogatz was honored along with V. Elaine Gross, the head of the Erase Racism initiative, and Jong Pil Lee, a noted SUNY Old Westbury professor who advocates education as a means of upward mobility. Rogatz, who knew King personally, said she became emotional thinking of President Barack Obama. "I can't help it. I just get tears in my eyes."