PATERSON, NJ - Under bright and skies over 200 area residents, local officials, and local non-profit and community leaders met to commemorate the opening of the new Rev. Dr. Luther King Park Wednesday.
The event was held to coincide with the 56th anniversaey of King's delivery of his "I Have a Dream Speech" on the day that hundreds of thousands of marched in Washington, D.C. in support of civil rights for African Americans.
Seven years after city officials designated Auburn Street as Freedom Boulevard, a non-descript, littered, vacant lot has been transformed into a beautiful, urban sanctuary at the beginning of the thoroughfare.
The formal ribbon cutting included the unveiling of an eight foot tall, bronze statue of the revered civil rights leader, sculpted by renowned artist Stan Watts as well as a beautiful eight-by-twenty foot mural. The works of art are accented by neat walking paths, freshly cut grass, 42 trees, shrubs and flowers, benches, a chess board, and a "Little Free Library." A sturdy, six-foot metal fence encloses the 4,222 square property.
Vivian Thibou said the ceremony provided special significance for her.
“My father, the Reverend Dr. Guilford K. Davis, marched in Selma with Dr. King,” the Paterson resident stated. “He was also at the Washington Monument when Dr. King delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. This day is very special to me.”
Also on hand was Benajmin Leak, a Paterson police officer who served as a bodyguard to King when he visited and spoke on March 27, 1968, at the Community Baptist Church of Love. Charley Mae Garrison, who sang at the service, 51 years ago, delivered an inspirational rendition of the gospel favorite, ‘Lord Remember Me.’
Directly adjacent to the park, the congregation is now designated as the Bethel A.M.E. Church, led by Pastor Alan Boyer. During his passionate pulpit presentation, delivered in the church’s auditorium, King stood beneath a painting of Jesus Christ shortly before his crucifixion in the Garden of Gethsemane. King was assassinated eight days later, in Memphis.
Rev. Frederick LaGarde Jr. was one of the keynote speakers. He grew up hearing his father deliver sermons in the church Dr. King visited and was later purchased by LaGarde’s grandfather.
“Today we come together and cross religious and denominational barriers,” the reverend told the audience. “We have reached part of Dr. King’s dream but we still have a long way to go when you can go a block either way and see killings. We need to take a ‘we go’ trip into our communities.”
LaGarde also expressed gratitude to 87-year old local businessman, and civil rights activist, Russell Grady for being instrumental in bringing Dr. King to Paterson.
Former Paterson Mayor Jane Williams-Warren said that the day Dr. King came to Paterson her mother was inside the Church of Love and heard him speak.
“At the time, over 48 years ago, I had just started working for the city,” Williams-Warren reminisced. “I had to stay at city hall for my job but I’m happy my mother got to hear Dr. King’s speech.”
“This is what One Paterson looks like,” Mayor Andre Sayegh said. “Dr. King not only spoke about racial equality, he spoke about gender equality. To really appreciate today, you had to have seen what this spot looked like before. Now, children, irrespective of race and background, will play here together.”
Sayegh then quoted from a stirring poem, read earlier by Paterson's Poet Laureate Talena Lachelle Queen.
“Today, we declare victory. Ring the bell for equal rights for all,” the mayor declared.
A bouquet of flowers was presented by ceremony emcee, 4th Ward Councilwoman Ruby Cotton, to Veronica Fernandez-Rogers of Habitat, who oversaw the project. Fernandez-Rogers thanked the myriad of volunteers who she said worked tirelessly whether the weather cooperated, or not. She also expressed gratitude for the non-profit group Friends of the MLK Park which helped secure over $200,000 in grants for the initiative.
Remarks were also presented by Passaic County Freeholder John Bartlett and citations were read from the offices of Governor Phil Murphy and Senator Cory Booker.
Funds for the project were provided by the United Way and Passaic County through its Open Space Trust Fund. Over 200 volunteers signed up to aid Paterson’s Habitat for Humanity to complete the necessary work. The Rutgers Cooperative Extension provided the park’s rain garden. Among approximately 30 other organizations that supported the effort were St. Paul’s Community Development Corporation and the Bronze Heat, the Paterson chapter of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters.
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