MAMARONECK, N.Y. Harold Wolfson told John Gitlitz to take deep breaths as he approached the Hommocks Middle School Auditorium podium Wednesday night. He was set to deliver an emotional speech after being honored with the Larchmont-Mamaroneck Committee on Human Rights Martin Luther King, Jr. Award, one he wasn't expecting.
"It caught me completely unprepared," said Gitlitz, a Mamaroneck resident and associate professor of Latin American studies, immigration and human rights at Purchase College in Harrison. "I haven't thought of myself in those terms, but I'm delighted."
The event, titled "Looking Back, Moving Forward," is hosted by the Larchmont-Mamaroneck Committee on Human Rights, with the help of the Local Summit, a citizen's action group that takes on projects to benefit the community - of which Wolfson is a member.
Gitlitz met King and shook his hand as a freshman at Oberlin College. "He had come to deliver an auditorium speech and the students were crazy about him," he said.
But Gitlitz's family spurred his passion for human rights at an early age. His father, a lawyer who he said experienced anti-Semitism in his field, founded an interracial organization that ran open housing drives. Sometimes, they would open their home to overnight guests, including Jackie Robinson and Langston Hughes, according to Mary Lee Berridge of the Local Summit.
"Clearly this extraordinary family history had its impact," said Berridge upon presenting the award.
Gitlitz would go on to help found the Hispanic Resource Center in Mamaroneck and advocate for the rights of local immigrants. "The social services of his agency and its community education program, which he oversaw, have been widely credited with leading to local acceptance of new immigrants and their right to seek work," Berridge said.
Although Gitlitz had time to prepare, the nervous social activist said a professor should never be scheduled to follow a reverend, referring to Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr., who was the keynote speaker.
In his sermon-like address, Forbes implored everyone to dig deeper into King's message than just the famous line, "I have a dream." The senior pastor of the Riverside Church of New York City reminded the audience that economic justice was the end game King strived, and ultimately died for.
"I think Dr. King would say unemployment is an unacceptable arrangement in sight of God, and that God will not rest until we are all high servants of God with bread enough to spare," Forbes said.
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