Would a 50-year-old person living in 1905 recognize America today?
Frances Brisbane, dean and professor of the School of Social Welfare at Stony Brook University, asked that question of about 60 people who gathered in the Riverhead Free Library for the East End Voter Coalition 11th annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration.
There weren’t any black mayors or CEOs of large corporations in 1905, she said. And there certainly was no black president of the United States.
“I answer myself and say, yes they would” recognize the U.S. “because they knew that a God of their understanding would turn our fear into fate … our struggles into triumph,” she said.
Ms. Brisbane was the keynote speaker of the program, a precursor to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday recognizing the civil rights leader’s birthday, January 15. Dr. King was assassinated while standing on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn. in 1968 when he was 39 years old. Today, he would have been 83.
Ms. Brisbane called on the audience to “reawaken” the dream, referring, of course, to Dr. King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech delivered at the national mall during a civil rights march on Washington in 1963. She asked them to continue Dr. King’s work of striving for equality and ending racism.
“We have not completed the King agenda,” she said, and added that everyone must work for equal employment and education opportunities and to eradicate hunger and homelessness.
“We must wake up, get up and work to make a difference,” she said to an outburst of applause and murmurs of “Amen.”
“Non-action will turn dreams into nightmares,” she added. “Let us vow in a Kingly spirit not to postpone today’s advocacy.”
Ms. Brisbane said citizens must improve the African-American population’s “dismal” voting record and urged gatherers to stay abreast of local news and politics.
The East End Voter Coalition was founded in 2001 to encourage minority residents to vote in local elections.
Larry Williams, co-chair of the coalition, said the event is held to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy and is an effort to make local residents more aware of the importance of voting.
“We want to make sure the younger people don’t forget,” he said, referring to Dr. King’s strides in civil rights.
The Living Temple Ministries Choir from Living Temple Ministries in Center Moriches performed a number of songs, and the reverend of Living Temple Ministry, James Brian, finished the program with a rendition of “Together We Stand, Divided We Fall.”
Shirley Jackson, a Riverhead resident who attends Living Temple Ministries in Center Moriches, said she was inspired by the celebration.
“I think we need to be aware,” she said. “There’s a lot we don’t know and we need to know.”
“I’m encouraged,” she added.