"MLK Through Many Voices" speakers, clockwise from top left, NAACP Eastern L.I. Branch president Lawrence Street, Sheriff Errol Toulon, Prof. James Banks and First Baptist Church Deacon Robert "Bubbie" Brown. Photos: Denise Civiletti

The words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came alive at Riverhead Free Library Saturday on what would have been the civil rights leader’s 92nd birthday, during a program sponsored by the Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force.

“MLK Through Many Voices” brought together four community leaders, Black men inspired by King, who read excerpts from King’s most notable speeches, sermons and writings: Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr., NAACP Eastern Long Island Branch president Lawrence Street, Suffolk County Community College Professor James Banks, and First Baptist Church of Riverhead Deacon Robert “Bubbie” Brown.

All four took turns reading excerpts from King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to more than 250,000 supporters during the Aug, 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Each man also read less familiar, but no less moving, words from other King speeches, sermons or letters — their own selections, accompanied by brief remarks about why they chose the reading.

‘Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere’

Toulon, the first Black to hold countywide elective office in Suffolk when first elected sheriff in 2017, read excerpts from King’s letter from Birmingham jail, penned following his arrest in April 1963 for leading a protest march in Birmingham, Alabama without a city parade permit, urging an Easter boycott of white-owned stores.

The Suffolk sheriff worked in the criminal justice system for over 30 years, 22 of them as a corrections officer at Riker’s Island in Manhattan, before being named deputy commissioner of operations for the New York City Department of Corrections in 2014.

“Thinking of him in solitary confinement for participating in a civil rights demonstration is something that really hits home for me,” Toulon said Saturday.

King, a Baptist minister, was not thinking of himself as he sat in that cell, Toulon said. “He was thinking about social changes that unfortunately we’re still facing in 2022,” he said.

The letter was written in response to a statement by eight white clergymen in The Birmingham News, criticizing the march and urging negotiation rather than protests to attain civil rights.

“He was answering those who advocated patience,” Toulon said. “He realized he time was now for action for social change.”

King rejected that idea, calling for “direct action” instead — it will bring the majority to the negotiating table, he wrote.

Responding to criticism about out-of-towners going to Birmingham to organize protests, King, of Atlanta, Georgia, wrote: “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.”

King argued that when laws are unjust, civil disobedience is not only justified but is also necessary and even patriotic.

His message will live long beyond all of us

Banks read excerpts from a sermon King gave on Nov. 17, 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, titled “Loving Your Enemies.” It draws on the words of Jesus to advocate for nonviolence.

“When you look in to the face of every man see deep down within him the image of God, you begin to love him, no matter what he does,” King said. “You can love the individual even if you don’t like — even if you hate — what they do.”

Banks said he chose this sermon because its message was so important to King that he went to preach it event though he was ill and his doctors told him not to go.

“His message will live long beyond all of us,” Banks said.

What is Your Life’s Blueprint?

Brown selected “What is Your Life’s Blueprint?” a speech King gave to junior high school students in Philadelphia on Oct. 26, 1967. The speech resonated with him because it provides valuable advice to young people who may not see opportunities that exist for them.

Brown said he went to Riverhead school district officials in 2007 to say he was disappointed that a Black child “could go through this school system and not see a face that looks ike them.”

With the support of administrators, Brown organized a four-session program that brought youngsters to the high school auditorium to listen to speakers from the local community who have succeeded in life.

“I wanted kids to know you can have a successful life, that there are heroes right here in their town that they could look up to,” Brown said. “You don’t need to be an NFL star or a rap star.”

‘An opportunity to make America a better nation’

Street read excerpts from King’s prophetic “I have been to the Mountaintop” speech, given in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968 — the night before he was assassinated by James Earl Ray at the Lorraine Motel, as King stood on a second-floor balcony, speaking with the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

King had traveled to Memphis to support Black city sanitation workers who were on strike to protest unequal wages and working conditions.

He gave the “Mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple in Memphis, after flying into the city on a plane delayed by a bomb threat. He planned to lead a protest march in Memphis that week.

In his speech that night, King, drawing on the parable of the Good Samaritan, spoke about one’s moral obligation to help people in need. The priest and the Levite saw an injured man on the ground and asked themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” The Good Samaritan “reversed the question,” King said, and asked, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” He urged the audience to ask themselves that question as they consider supporting the striking sanitation workers.

“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation,” King said.

‘I have been to the mountaintop’

He said he thanked God for allowing him to be there. He reflected on an attempted assassination on Sept. 20, 1958 at a book-signing event in Harlem, where someone he described as “a demented Black woman” stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener as he was signing copies of his first book, “Strive Toward Freedom.”

He was rushed to Harlem Hospital, the letter opener lodged in his chest, with “the razor tip of the instrument…touching my aorta,” King later wrote. It required major surgery to remove. His doctor told him if had sneezed, the blade would have pierce the aorta and “you would have drowned in your own blood.”

In the speech, King recalled his most memorable letter, from by a young girl in White Plains, who wrote to say “I’m glad you didn’t sneeze.”

King said he, too, was glad he didn’t sneezed, recounting all the pivotal moments in his public life — and in American history — that he would have missed had he sneezed. The freedom ride in 1961. The actions in 1963 that “aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.” The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where he gave the “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. The Selma to Montgomery March in 1965.

“I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze,” King said.

His assailant, Isola Curry, 42, was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and found incapable of understanding the charge against her — she had been indicted for attempted murder. Curry was committed to a hospital for the criminally insane and spent the rest of her life institutionalized.

While King was still hospitalized after his surgery, he issued a statement reaffirming his belief in “the redemptive power of nonviolence” and said “felt no ill will” toward his attacker and said he hoped she would “the help she apparently needs if she is to become a free and constructive member of society.”

In his speech on the eve of his assassination, King said he knew people were worried about him for going to Memphis.

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind,” King said.

“And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” King concluded, in an eerie foreshadowing of his fate the next day.

‘Looking for a call to action’

Street grew emotional as he spoke King’s words and reflected on their meaning today.

“He knew in his heart something was going to happen,” Street said.

“He was a man of God and he used his ministry to develop and orchestrate and strategize” in a nonviolent fight against “the evils of discrimination,” Street said. King’s words and his deeds “pulled at the heartstrings of every white person,” he said.

Street said he “applauds” the Anti-Bias Task Force — he was himself a member briefly a few years back — but, he said, “I was expecting more than just these speeches. I was expecting that you address our voting rights, here at this critical point in history.”

Street said Blacks are in danger of losing their voting rights and “if we lose our voting rights we are right back where we started.”

The NAACP leader said he is “looking for a call to action” for all to get involved.

“If you really want to honor MLK, form a campaign to write letters to our congressman and our leaders in our town government,” Street said. “We need letters, especially from the white community. Write letters to your congressman,” he said.

Since Street appeared to be urging action on federal voting rights legislation, it’s not clear what the message of a letter-writing campaign targeting the local congressman or town officials would be at this point.

Two voting rights bills that were languishing in Congress because of the 60-vote requirement now in place in the Senate, have been combined into one, the “Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act.” That bill was passed by the House of Representatives on Jan. 13 by a vote of 220-203. Every Republican who voted, including First Congressional District Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), voted against it. (Nine Republican members of the House did not vote.)

The fate of the legislation is now in the hands of the Senate, where it is widely considered dead-on-arrival, without a change to the Senate rule requiring 60 votes for passage. Both of New York’s U.S. Senators, Minority Leader Charles Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand are Democrats who already support the legislation.

The bill would restore parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that were struck down by a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision that significantly eroded the protections of the 1965 law, which marked the start of widespread enfranchisement of Black voters previously denied ballot access by taxes, tests and other access requirements that disproportionately impacted minority voters.

Prof. James Banks, left, Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr., First Baptist Church Deacon Robert “Bubbie” Brown, and NAACP Eastern L.I. Branch President Lawrence Street. Photo: Denise Civiletti

A video of the event will be posted on the library’s website this week, adult program coordinator Jenny Bloom said.

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