Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” This was the message First Baptist Church of Riverhead wanted to leave with its audience Monday as the nation celebrated the civil rights leader’s birthday.
The church hosted its 33rd annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast, honoring four people who serve as role models through civic activism as they honor the legacy of Dr. King. Two of this year’s honorees are local: LeRoy Heyliger of Mattituck and Larry Williams of Riverhead.
“It’s a humbling experience,” Mr. Williams, 61, said before the event. “When you work, you don’t think about the recognition. I actually saw it as a labor of love.”
When Mr. Williams left the Air Force at 22, he got a job at Calverton National Cemetery as a temporary caretaker. He retired last year after 38 years of service. Since then, he has spent time working with Riverhead senior citizens and recently was made a deacon of the First Baptist Church in Cutchogue.
His aim was to help the community. He became president of the Clearview Civic Association in 2000 and still holds that position today. He organizes the Stop the Violence Basketball Tournament on Horton Avenue and serves the East End Voter Coalition, which encourages all people, with a focus on people of color, to vote in local, state and federal elections.
“It has always been about my love of God and the love for my community,” Mr. Williams said during his acceptance speech.
The room at the Hyatt Regency Wind Watch Hotel in Hauppauge was packed Monday morning, including guests state Senator Ken LaValle, County Executive Steve Bellone, Riverhead School District Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez, and Errol Toulon Jr., the first African-American elected as Suffolk County Sheriff, who received a standing ovation.
Mr. Heyliger was born on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts and moved to Brooklyn with his parents in 1937. A 20-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force for 20 years, he was honorably discharged in 1973, after serving in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. He then had a 25-year career with the U.S. Postal Service. During this time, however, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which forced him to face a different kind of battle every day as a civilian.
“I’m a proud son of immigrant parents who dreamed of a better life,” said Mr. Heyliger, 82. “I’m proud to be here today to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday and I stand with the 800,000 Dreamers, and the temporary protected status individuals, who face deportation this year.”
He became involved in community activism, joining the Southold Town’s Anti-Bias Task Force and became a member of the Southold Town Housing Commission. He has remained active in Unity Baptist Church in Mattituck for the past 50 years.
Also honored Monday were Lillie Crowder, an educator in New York City schools for 31 years and a pioneer in STEM, and Yvette Hallman of Huntington, who mentors underprivileged teens.
The Rev. Charles Coverdale of First Baptist Church in Riverhead closed the event by reminding everyone to follow in Dr. King’s footsteps and speak up when necessary.
“Dr. King said that the arc of the universe always bends toward justice,” the Rev. Coverdale said in a statement that was also handed out to attendees. “Those of us who genuinely love our nation and want it to truly be ‘one nation under God with liberty and justice for all’ must rededicate ourselves to the work of helping our country rediscover its moral compass.”
Top photo caption: Larry Williams of Riverhead addresses the audience after receiving his award. (Credit: Rachel Siford)