On a hot August day in 1963, 6-year-old Elaine McPherson’s parents took her to Washington, D.C. to hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the civic rights leader from Montgomery, Ala. who was waging a nonviolent battle against segregation and the legalized racism of those times. The little African-American girl was among 200,000 people who crowded the National Mall for his speech.
It would be remembered as his great “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Elaine was there on the mall as he lyrically called for racial equality and an end to discrimination. His powerful call for freedom and justice would resonate for Ms. McPherson all her life — a life cut short on August 22, 2010, when the civic-minded Riverhead community member suffered a massive heart attack and died in her husband William’s arms. She was 53.
Mr. McPherson was there on Sunday in the front row of a meeting room at the Riverhead Free Public Library, when a commemorative service for Dr. King was held by the East End Voter Coalition, a group to which his wife belonged that is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
At the end of the service, coalition co-chairmen Larry Williams and Robert “Bubbie” Brown gave Mr. McPherson a wooden plaque called the “Shining Star” award, honoring his wife for her years of service to the East End Voter Coalition.
“My wife did quite a bit for the community,” Mr. McPherson said after the ceremony as friends and supporters mingled at the library. He said he was still moved by his wife’s spirit and the words of Dr. King that she took to so much to heart. “I had tears in my eyes,” he commented. “Dr. King left a legacy that I feel is hard to duplicate. While Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton are doing what they can, there was only one Martin Luther King.”
The service was a precursor to Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, a national holiday recognizing the civil rights leader’s birthday, January 15. He would have been 82. He was assassinated while standing on a motel balcony in Memphis in 1968 at the age of 39.
Mr. Williams said that the organization has been celebrating Dr. King’s birthday since the group’s inception 10 years ago. He noted that about a dozen Riverhead residents had gotten together to organize the coalition in 2001 to encourage minority residents to get out and vote in local elections.
The organization has since dwindled to eight members, but Mr. Williams emphasized that the handful of civic-minded people is as committed to serving the community as ever.
“If there’s something you need, if there’s something in the town that you don’t understand, just contact one of us,” Mr. Williams said to the audience of about 100 at the library on Sunday. “We pay attention to what goes on locally and often you can find me in Town Hall. I work a full-time job, but I still take the time out to go and find out what’s going on.”
Sunday’s ceremony included several participants, including the keynote speaker Natacha Volcy, a guidance counselor at Riverhead High School. The 27-year-old Westbury resident stressed the importance of education.
A child of Haitian immigrants, Ms. Volcy said her hardworking parents pushed her to do well in school. Although her mother, Denice, worked full-time as a nurse, she made a continued effort to be involved in her children’s education, Ms. Volcy recalled.
She called for parents, teachers, school administrators and community members to be more involved in the schooling of local children.
“Our goal is to work together to make sure every child is successful,” Ms. Volcy said. “And to do this, we have to have strong teamwork. The school can’t do it alone, parents can’t do it alone, we need to find new resources and services from the community to strengthen school programs, family practices and student learning and development.”
Mr. McPherson commented that he appreciated the young counselor’s focus on education and noted it was in keeping with the spirit of Dr. King’s message. He pointed out that his son, William, 18, was at Sunday’s celebration to hear his guidance counselor speak.
“She said it and Dr. King said it: ‘You get that education, because once you have an education, no one can take it from you,’” Mr. McPherson said.
Sunday’s event featured young Sag Harbor singing sensation, Dylan Collins, 13, offering her rendition of gospel icon Kirk Franklin’s “Are You Listening?” The song was followed by a dance performance by the First Baptist Church of Riverhead’s Liturgical Dance Group.
Robert “Bubbie” Brown took the stage to share one of his poems, “Continuing the Legacy,” in which he pondered what Dr. King would have thought about the conditions that newcomers face in the U.S. In the poem, he sees America as a place where they “huddle in groups, in fear.”
Mr. Brown recited from his poem:
“If God sent Martin back to earth to see how far we got, would he report back to heaven, ‘They ain’t done diddly squat?’
Would Martin judge us harshly? He would, ‘cause it would seem that we’ve failed miserably and fallen short of his ‘I have a dream.’”