When Riverhead native and civil rights advocate Rashad Robinson took to the podium Monday at the 29th annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Breakfast at the Hyatt Regency Wind-Watch Hotel in Hauppauge to deliver his keynote address, he didn’t mince words about his views on the current state of race relations in the United States.
“We’ve still got some problems, y’all,” Mr. Robinson told the packed ballroom of civil rights leaders, clergy members and elected officials who attended the event, which is sponsored each year by the First Baptist Church of Riverhead.
“Black women and men are being incarcerated at alarming rates as a for-profit prison industry continues to cash in,” he said. “Black unemployment remains disproportionately high. And despite evidence of widespread attacks on voter freedom, last year our Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, the key achievement of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Mr. Robinson, who graduated from Riverhead High School in 1997, is the executive director of ColorofChange.org, an online organization that advocates on behalf of African Americans “to bring about positive political and social change for everyone,” according to its website.
Other speakers at Monday’s event included the Reverend Charles A. Coverdale and the Reverend Cynthia Liggon, both of the First Baptist Church of Riverhead, Congressman Tim Bishop and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.
Local politicians, like Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter and Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski, were also in attendance.
“It’s a wonderful event and I’m very proud that the First Baptist Church would run such a large and prestigious event honoring [Martin Luther King, Jr.], one of America’s great leaders,” Supervisor Walter said.
In a short speech, Congressman Bishop urged attendees to “…Not just honor Dr. King but to emulate Dr. King,” who was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. nearly 46 years ago.
“We are not going to get anywhere into this country if we continue to stand in our respective corners and shout epithets and vulgarities at one another,” Congressman Bishop said.
Echoing the Congressman’s message of inclusion, County Executive Bellone received momentous applause when he spoke of his determination to change what he called Suffolk County’s reputation as “a place of intolerance” into a place “that celebrates and embraces its diversity as the strength that it is.”
“All communities and all people — no matter where they come from in life, no matter what community they come from, no matter where they start out — [should] have an equal opportunity at success,” he said, touching upon his desire to recruit Suffolk County Police Department officers who are “representative” of the communities they serve.
“It is our determination to work with all of you… to build a stronger, better, more united and more equal Suffolk County,” County Executive Bellone said.
Later on at the event Mr. Robinson, who has appeared on MSNBC, CNN and BET, said it’s the problems of today that drive him to work toward a better tomorrow.
“It’s recognizing these challenges while at the same time being inspired by regular folks who stand up and fight back that brings me to my passion and work at Color of Change,” he said. “Every single day at Color of Change we hear the stories of those who want to be heard and counted. We work to make democracy and our economy fairer, more open and more just.”