Latinos Also Dreamed with MLK

A giant screen displays a speaker addressing marchers observing the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on August 24. (Photo by Edward Kimmel via Flickr, Creative Commons License)

A giant screen displays a speaker addressing marchers observing the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on August 24. (Photo by Edward Kimmel via Creative Commons license)

The historic civil rights march where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech took place 50 years ago. Although it is remembered as an African-American and white rally, it is seldom remembered that, among the 200,000 to 300,000 people attending, there were thousands of Hispanics, many of them Puerto Ricans living in New York.

One of them was sitting near the leader, in the stand before the Lincoln Memorial, and gave a speech during the event.

We are talking about Gilberto Gerena Valentín, 97, a Puerto Rican activist and former New York city councilman, who at the time was the president of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, and of the Congreso del Pueblo Puertorriqueño (Puerto Rican People’s Congress).

In a phone interview from his native town of Lares, Puerto Rico, where he edits the international magazine Grito Cultural, Gerena Valentín says that it was the Reverend himself who asked him to organize the Hispanic community to attend the march.

“Martin Luther King Jr. invited me to Atlanta, Ga., to discuss the march that was being organized, and I went there with a strong team. He personally invited me to organize the Latinos in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts, and so I did,” he said.

On Aug. 28, 1963, more than 2,000 buses, 21 special trains, 10 chartered planes and countless cars gathered in the nation’s capital. People started marching from the Washington Monument toward the Lincoln Memorial. The rally had a huge impact, contributing to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Gerena Valentín said that most of the Puerto Ricans, and many Mexicans and Dominicans who attended, belonged to unions like Local 65, which provided the buses.

Twelve of these buses left from New York, and in the article published the next day by El Diario-La Prensa, it was noted that the Puerto Ricans were singing “La Borinqueña,” their national anthem.

According to the article, the Puerto Rican Committee Pro Washington March was represented by Gerena Valentín, Celia Vice, and Assemblymen Carlos Ríos and Frank Torres. It is estimated that some 10,000 Puerto Ricans from different states attended the event.

The former councilman remembers that the policemen set dogs on them, but they walked on without fear.

“I was sitting on the platform with Martin Luther King, and one of the coordinators called me and told me they were going to give me 15 minutes. He asked me to speak in Spanish,” said Gerena Valentín. “I said that there was discrimination not only against blacks, but also against Puerto Ricans and Hispanics.”

The activist said that when he heard the now-famous Luther King Jr. speech, he was very pleased: “Because he gave a religious sense to a civic activity, and thanks to that he could mobilize hundreds of thousands of people.”

Gilberto Gerena’s track record:

  1. Was born in Lares in 1918 and moved to New York in 1937.
  2. In New York he became a key figure in the labor, social, cultural and civil rights struggles of the Puerto Rican community.
  3. He participated in the foundation of the most important Puerto Rican post-war organizations.
  4. He was a councilman and served as Director of the City Commission on Human Rights, and as Special Secretary for the State’s migrant workers.
  5. In 1965, he fought for the Voting Rights Act, which gave Latinos the right to vote freely, and he participated in the creation of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which reviews police abuse claims.
  6. The Center for Puerto Rican Studies recently published his memoirs: “Soy Gilberto Gerena Valentín, memorias de un puertorriqueño en Nueva York.”

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  1. Pingback: LBJ’s Defenders Cheapen his Accomplishments | BlackPressUSA

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