Washington heavyweights were among the more than 400 people on hand on Monday as the Greater New York Inter-Alumni Council of the United Negro College Fund held its 24th annual awards breakfast in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King.
U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer (D-New York) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) both were on hand, as was Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-Queens, Nassau).
The breakfast was established with parallel purposes: the celebration and continuation of King’s work; and to promote 37 traditionally black colleges in 12 states that the UNCF supports financially.
Helen Davis-Williams of Cambria Heights, a graduate of Benedict College in Columbia, SC, was honored for her more than 20 years of work on behalf of Benedict College through its alumni association, and through the UNCF in New York.
She is a former teacher who retired from the city’s Human Resource Administration.
Also honored was Valdave Sawyer of Manhattan, a graduate of the Tuskegee Institute, now known as Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Ala.
Sawyer, retired from the city’s Department of Social Services, also was honored for her efforts on behalf of her school and the UNCF.
Hosted at Antun’s in Queens Village, the event is largely a fundraiser. And Frank Franklin, president of the Greater New York Chapter, said revenue and knowledge of the group and its aims are vital to its mission.
He told the story of a politician he recently ran into who was seeking his help.
“I invited him to the breakfast, and told him there was not much more I could do,” Franklin said. “He told me ‘You can spread the word. And you can write a check.’ We need you to spread the word, and to write checks.”
The keynote speaker, the Rev. Michael Walrond Jr., pastor of First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, has a special place in his heart for the United Negro College Fund. He attended Morehouse College in Atlanta.
“I met my wife there,” he said. “And one day she was called in and told she could not continue due to insufficient funds.”
A UNCF scholarship allowed her to complete her studies.
And he cautioned all to be wary of celebrating King and doing nothing else.
“I question when people memorialize him, but do not continue the journey of his works,” he said.
Earlier, Gillibrand spoke about discussing King with her young sons, Theo, 10, and Henry, 5.
“[Henry] said ‘He believed everyone should be treated fairly,’” she said.
Gillibrand and Meeks both spoke of how President Obama’s agenda is a continuation of King’s efforts to combat poverty in addition to his targeted civil rights, including the President’s quest for implementation of the Affordable Healthcare Act, and calls for an increase in the national minimum wage.
Schumer quoted King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963 to those — many of whom were fellow ministers — who agreed with King’s aims, but felt that the marches, sit-ins, boycotts and other forms of civil disobedience were just too confrontational, and too soon.
“‘For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!,’” he said. “ ... This ‘“Wait”’ has almost always meant ‘“Never.’”
Walrond said he used to question where King found the courage to continue his work knowing that there were those in society willing to kill him in order to silence him. Then he came across what he said was one of King’s less-quoted remarks.
“Your life will begin to end when you become silent about things that matter,” he said.