Locals recall Dr. King's 1968 visit

Now, on the eve of the holiday honoring King and Barack Obama's historic presidential inauguration, several residents looked back on King's visit to the village, and shared their recollections of that day, and that time.
Late in the afternoon on March 26, 1968, an audience that was mostly white and young, but which included many members of the village's African-American community as well, listened as King spoke about poverty, ignorance, indifference and intolerance. He touched on discrimination, the need for brotherhood and understanding, and on what the Vietnam War was doing to the country, calling the war draining, divisive and unjust, not worthy of America.
"It was exciting - it was beautiful," said Catherine Pucciarelli, a village resident who was a board member of the local chapter of the Economic Opportunity Council and active in its fight against poverty and inequality. "He was marvelous, riveting. People hardly breathed when he spoke. He didn't use notes, he spoke from the heart. Although there were a lot of blacks in the audience, he realized he was speaking to a predominantly white audience. What he wanted to say was that we are all the same, and if we want to succeed, we have to do it together.
"It was something you would never forget," added Pucciarelli, who was in her mid-30s at the time. "You could have heard a pin drop. No one got restless."
"I remember him onstage," said Ernestine Small, a lifelong Rockville Centre resident who was also on the EOC board and is now its executive director. "I know where I sat. I was in the left-hand side of the audience."
Small recalled that King had come from out East that day - Riverhead, she believes, where he had visited migrant workers. From New York he was headed to Memphis, where he would die on April 4. "He knew he was heading into trouble in Memphis," she said, "because of a fierce garbagemen's strike. They had asked him to come in and support them."
Small said she has been fighting inequality all her life, and has always kept King's message alive in her work with 3- and 4-year-olds who come to Headstart, and older students who are tutored after school at the EOC office on North Centre Avenue. "Because I work with children, I try to motivate them with things he said, to do their very best at whatever they do," she said. "... Strive for your goals and do your best ... you can do anything and be whatever you want to be. If you can dream it, you can be it."
When she graduated from South Side High School in 1955, Small joined the West End Civic Association. At the time, the Congress On Racial Equality, the NAACP and other civil rights groups, including the Poor People's Campaign, were working to integrate Rockville Centre schools and to improve housing and education for blacks in the village and throughout Nassau County.
"In the South they were integrating stores, schools and buses, working to tear down the racial barriers," said Small. "When we took a look at the total picture of what was happening to us up north, we found out it wasn't so hot. We were accepting what we had and it wasn't good."
Small remembers fighting a practice known as "redlining," which kept blacks in Rockville Centre from buying homes anywhere but in the West End and relegated them to separate and, she said, inferior education. Before the Watson Elementary School was built, Small said, blacks attended the Clinton School, on the site of what is now the St. Agnes Cathedral Elementary School. If they lived south of Sunrise Highway, they went to Riverside Elementary School.
"When we got to the middle and high schools, some of us had to struggle," Small said. "I don't think we were fully prepared. I think that was the reason for the dropout rate that was higher for blacks. Now we have more to offer - we didn't have after-school and support programs. We have all these things now, and the educational system is better."
Pucciarelli, who had become active with the EOC through her work with the Catholic Family Movement, remembered that the Poor People's Campaign became an affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization King helped to create. She and Small recalled some of the other Rockville Centre residents, many of whom have since died, who were involved in the movement at the time and attended King's speech. The Rev. Morgan Days Sr., the former pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, was among them, as was EOC board member Lucille Smith.
"You couldn't say no to Lucille," said Pucciarelli, who went on to hold leadership positions in the PTA and the village board, as a trustee from 1975 to 1979 and again from 1981 to 1985. "She was the kind of woman who thought, If you invite Dr. King, he'll come. And he did."
In March of 1969, to celebrate the first anniversary of King's visit, Pucciarelli helped organize "The Many Faces of America," a musical tribute at the junior high school. In its program, she wrote:
"This night began long ago. It began in the hold of a slave ship ... in a dying Irish village, in a far-off Chinese town, in the marketplace of an Italian city, in modern-day Puerto Rico. This night began in the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, in his wish to make America see the plight of her poor, to make this nation realize the waste in affluence, the indifference in the human heart, and the futility of war and overkill. This night began in Dr. King's modern odyssey in search of a true America, one alive to the principles written in the papers of her archives. This night began last year, when members of the Rockville Centre community asked Dr. King to speak at South Side Junior High School. On March 26, 1968, in the mixed cold of a vanishing winter and the warmth of a coming spring, the South Side auditorium filled with people. The concerned, the curious, young, middle-aged, old, black and white came to see and hear one man, one man with an idea. He came. Martin Luther King, a name, a face in the newsreels, was now suddenly real and close to those who had gathered to hear him.
"Dr. King appeared, a quiet, gentle man warmly accepting the greetings of well-wishers, of officials of our community. Mayor [John] Anderson welcomed him. Rev. Ralph Ahlberg introduced him. Then his voice silenced the crowd. His words echoed through the auditorium. He was a man on fire with a message. He painted the dreadful picture of poverty in America. He spoke of ignorance, indifference and intolerance. He issued the call for peace ... He asked for brotherhood, not the empty-slogan brand of brotherhood but the real sharing of concerns among all people."
The night, Pucciarelli wrote, was "a tribute to a black man who spoke for all men."
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