Friend of civil rights leader speaks at Riverhead MLK Day event

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There are certain things most everyone knows about Martin Luther King Jr.

They know he led the Montgomery bus boycott, marched on Washington and from Selma to Montgomery, and that he “had a dream.”

There are fewer people, as we approach 48 years since his assassination, that can say they actually knew the man. 

On Sunday, about three dozen community members who attended the East End Voter Coalition’s annual MLK Day event at the Riverhead Free Library had the opportunity to hear from Roberta Smith D’Oyen, who met Dr. King while a student at Howard University. The Silver Springs, Md. resident would go on to march with the civil rights leader and even counted him as a friend before his death.

During her remarks Sunday, Ms. D’Oyen focused on some of the things people might not know about Dr. King.

“I’m proud to be speaking about my friend M.L. King,” she told the audience. “You see, he wasn’t the type of person who wanted to be called reverend or doctor. He was M.L. King.”

Ms. D’Oyen went on to speak about Dr. King’s childhood, mentioning how his given name was actually Michael and that he could read music and play piano. She also talked about how he arrived at Gandhism over other methods of protest and how he was a somewhat reluctant leader — a gifted orator who had the ability to inspire, but not a natural motivation to lead.

Ms. D’Oyen added that Dr. King was old-fashioned in how he treated women, preferring they had more of a planning role in the civil rights movement while the men stood at the front of the pack during marches. However, he was a caring man, she said, who even took the time to meet her family.

“He was a real lively man who was a lot of fun, but very serious about the jobs in front of us,” she said. “He was someone you would have loved to respect and be around because he was always there for you.”

Ms. D’Oyen, who later earned her law degree and is retired from a career in public service, remains actively involved in civil rights, women’s and criminal justice issues.

“It’s just awesome to have someone like her speaking to us this afternoon,” said Robert “Bubbie” Brown, co-chairman of the East End Voter Coalition.

Bobby Goodale recites the "I Have a Dream Speech" Sunday. (Credit: Grant Parpan)
Bobby Goodale recites the “I Have a Dream Speech” Sunday. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Other speakers at Sunday’s event included Bobby Goodale who recited Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in place of his son, Jesse, who was performing in the school play.

Mr. Brown said he and co-chair Larry Williams remarked to each other during the event how much of the speech is still relevant today. Less repeated passages include references to incarceration, the “horrors of police brutality” and the lack of appealing candidates for black voters to choose from.

Asked about the emotions he felt hearing the full speech once again. Mr. Brown was his usual candid self.

“I’m feeling more disappointed that we haven’t evolved [as a society] to fully realize Dr. King’s dream,” he said.

East End Voter Coalition founder Butch Langhorn also spoke during the event about the history of the EEVC, which was founded in an effort to turn out residents, and in particular minority voters, to the polls during his 1999 run for the Riverhead Town Board.

The organization has continued each year since, hosting an event to honor Dr. King around his birthday each year.

Mr. Langhorn, who lost the 1999 election, said he believes the EEVC has had an impact in the years since, reaching potential voters and educating them on the importance of having their voice heard in local elections.

“The younger folks, certainly in Riverhead, are doing better than they once did,” he said of Election Day turnout. “They have to know their vote does count. Especially in the votes closer to home.”

Top caption: Roberta Smith D’Oyen with East End Voter Coalition co-chairmen Larry Williams, left, and Robert “Bubbie” Brown. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

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