“I was living in New York City at the time and a friend said, ‘Want to go?’ I was for civil rights and so I got a free ride on the bus from New York City,” Valerie Neiderhoffer recalled late Wednesday afternoon as she waited for the 50th anniversary program to begin in Martin Luther King Park on Buffalo’s East Side.
She came because she was there on the Mall for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963, when Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
“It was wonderful,” she said. “It was a beautiful day. But I couldn’t hear anything. I was too far back.”
Community advocate Will Yelder wasn’t too far back. Invited by community activist Charles Perkins to go with his group to Washington, Yelder said, “The first thing I did was walk up to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and I held out my hands and said, ‘Wow!’ There were thousands of people and I felt their energy and spirit.”
Yelder also had instructions from Perkins.
“He kept saying, ‘You will stand there and listen to that man and you will not move,’ ” Yelder said. “Being 13, I didn’t understand all of it, but what I did get out of it was that everybody in the community can do something. That’s my interpretation of the dream, to go out and do as much as you can for the community.”
After an introduction by Bill Washington of the Western New York Peace Center and a prayer by Rev. Mark Blue, pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Lackawanna and president of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Buffalo and Vicinity, Yelder and Neiderhoffer got to hear King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety.
The speech was delivered with a singular passion in front of the park’s King statue by Ronald Brown, who has committed it to memory. Its enduring relevance and power were not lost on the crowd of more than 100, who greeted its most stirring passages with shouts and applause.
On hand were several public officials and candidates, including State Sen. Tim Kennedy, Masten Council Member Demone Smith, former State Sen. Antoine Thompson, Erie County Comptroller candidate Kevin Gaughan and Family Court Judge Candidate Mary Giallanza Carney.
The succession of speakers who followed Brown pointed out that King’s dream has still not been fulfilled 50 years later.
“The same injustices that were prevalent in 1963 are still prevalent in 2013,” said Angela Blue, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, citing unemployment, failing schools and the justice system. “We can no longer let Dr. King’s dream be deferred. It’s up to you – black, white, Latino and Asian – to start working together.”
Labor leader Richard Lipsitz pointed out that the March on Washington also was about jobs and that King not only campaigned against racism, but also advocated for the rights of working people.
“They’ve got to be seen as the same struggle,” he said.
Emcee Washington took his turn, reading from his smartphone an essay he wrote called “The Dream Deferred,” in which he said the community should take action on behalf of freedom and justice and not depend on politicians.
“If anything, King would’ve wanted us to take what he did and have a dream greater than his,” said William Richardson, president of a young African-American activist group who is turning 24 today. “We are the key to that dream. If this world doesn’t get better, we will have to live with the consequences of it.”