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Marching with Martin Luther King

“In 1963, several black leaders of the civil rights struggle, among them Rev. King, decided to lead a march for work and equality on Washington, D.C.… On August 28, over 250,000 men and women from all parts of the United States went to Washington, D.C., among them more than 30,000 Puerto Ricans.”

These words, from Gilberto Gerena Valentín’s recently published memoirs by Centro Publications (Gilberto Gerena Valentín: My Life as a Community Activist, Labor Organizer, and Progressive Politician in New York City—also published in Spanish as Soy Gilberto Gerena Valentín: memorias de un puertorriqueño en Nueva York), should settle once-and-for-all the often-heard complaint that, as the Huffington Post reported on the 50th anniversary of the march, “Latinos were scarce among the 250,000 people who turned out in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, mainly because they were caught up in pursuing their own causes. Some of the larger Hispanic civil rights organizations even considered publicly denouncing the mass protest.”

In his memoirs, Puerto Rican civil rights leader Gilberto Gerena Valentín recounts his organizing and participation in the march, as well as in other important civil rights events of the 1960s—the 1964 New York City school boycott, the 1966 March Against Fear from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi, and the 1968 Poor People’s March in Washington.

By the early 1960s, Gerena Valentín, as reported in the New York Times, was widely recognized as an important labor organizer and as the preeminent Puerto Rican civil rights leader. Through this work, Gerena Valentín forged deep political and personal relationships New York’s black civil rights leadership, especially with Brooklyn’s civil rights leader, the Rev. Milton Galmison, and with labor organizer Ewart Guinier. They would be the ones to introduce Gerena Valentín to Rev. Martin Luther King.

For the March on Washington, Gerena Valentín led a two-fold organizational effort. While the mass hometown organization over which he presided, the Congreso de Pueblos, mobilized the different Puerto Rican hometown associations for the march, he also through the labor movement insured a large Puerto Rican participation in the union’s delegations to the march.

Interestingly, as Gerena Valentín organized for the March on Washington he also called on other Puerto Ricans to form a specific Puerto Rican civil rights organization—what would eventually be the National Association for Puerto Rican Civil Rights. According to a New York Times article titled “Rights drive set by Puerto Ricans: Leaders form committee to press for equality” (August 23, 1963: p. 10), in a meeting held on August 22, 1963 at the Manhattan Hotel, a group of seven Puerto Rican leaders met to plan for the August 28 March on Washington as well as to layout the ground work for a Puerto Rican civil rights organization. Present at the meeting were: Gerena Valentín, Commissioner of the City’s Department of Relocation Herman Badillo, AFL-CIO District 65 labor organizer Mario Abreu, Manuel Martínez and Irma Vidal Santaella of the Puerto Rican Parade Committee, Ramón Martínez of the Puerto Rican and Spanish American Organizations, and Joseph Monserrat, director of the migration division of the Puerto Rico’s Department of Labor, who served as the spokesperson.

The major news media outlets completely ignored the Puerto Rican participation on the march. However, New York’s El Diario – La Prensa's front page for the 29th of August of 1963 proudly proclaimed “Entonan la Borinqueña en Washington” (They sing La Borinqueña in Washington). The article narrates how a Puerto Rican delegation led by Gerena Valentín began to sing "La Borinqueña" (Puerto Rico’s anthem) as they approached the Lincoln Memorial. According to the report, the crowd burst into applause, and two young Puerto Rican women who were nearby in the audience broke into tears when they heard the anthem.

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While New York City and the Northeast region sent large delegations to participate in the March on Washington they were not the only Puerto Rican organizations present. El Diario – La Prensa’s edition of August 28, 1963 reported that two separate small delegations travelled from Puerto Rico to participate in the march for equality. One, from the Colegio de Abogados de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rican Bar Association), led by Manuel Abreu Castillo, William Fred Santiago and Noel Colón Martínez; the other, from the Partido Acción Cristiana (Christian Action Party), included José Feliú Pesquera and Vicente Jiménez.

Gerena Valentín’s memoirs (Gilberto Gerena Valentín: My Life as a Community Activist, Labor Organizer, and Progressive Politician in New York City), of which we below reprint the chapter on the March on Washington, document the organizing and fighting by Puerto Ricans from the 1950s through the 1980s for their civil rights. As Gerena Valentín tell us in his book, this struggle took many forms, and one of the most effective ones included the building of coalitions, based on equality, with other groups.

by Xavier F. Totti

Chapter 27. Marching with Martin Luther King

By Gilberto Gerena Valentín

During the fifties, the black civil rights movement began to strengthen in the United States. In 1955, Rosa Parks, one of the leaders of the movement in Montgomery, Alabama, defied the segregationist laws of the state and refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. Parks’s arrest was the catalyst for a protest movement that spread all across the nation. A young minister named Martin Luther King became the leader of the movement within the state, and in the process became the best-known leader of the civil rights movement in the entire United States.

In the early sixties, the tensions and conflicts in American society intensified, fueled in part by the unpopular Vietnam War and the wars of national liberation in other parts of the world, including Cuba. During that period we saw the emergence of a radicalized student movement, and new groups within the black, Chicano, and Puerto Rican communities began to openly question the status quo.

In 1963, several black leaders of the civil rights struggle, among them Rev. King, decided to lead a march for work and equality on Washington, D.C. At that moment, we Puerto Ricans in New York City were engaged on several fronts in a struggle for our civil rights, as well, including the full right to vote and a decent education. Several black civil rights leaders were active in the fight against racial segregation in the city’s schools, among them the Reverend Milton Galamison of Brooklyn and Bayard Rustin of Manhattan, who  were  also  working  with  Rev.  King  in  organizing  the  march.  The black leadership gave me the responsibility for mobilizing Puerto Ricans, as I was the president of the Congreso de Pueblos, the only organization large enough to deal with all the complexities of that task. My assignment was to organize Puerto Ricans in New York City and also in New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.

During  the  first  six  months  of  that  year,  we  worked  very,  very  hard on  that  important  organizational  project.  The  labor  movement  helped me tremendously with transportation and expenses. At that point I was working full-time at the Adams factory on Long Island. My boss, Julie Pariser, was incredibly supportive, giving me time off to attend meetings and other activities related to the activity. On August 28, over 250,000 men and women from all parts of the United States went to Washington, D.C., among them more than 30,000 Puerto Ricans.

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It was an extremely emotional moment for me when the organizers of the event told me that I would be one of the speakers at the March, and that I would be speaking as a representative of the Puerto Rican community in the United States. I addressed the public in Spanish. When I stood at the lectern that had been set up in front of the Lincoln Memorial and faced the thousands and thousands of faces looking up at me as the representative of my community, I became very nervous. But I immediately recovered my composure and, having memorized my speech, I spoke for fifteen minutes. Although I know that most of the people there didn’t have any idea what I was talking about, they very respectfully and affectionately applauded me when I was done. It was on that same stage that the Reverend King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

© Center for Puerto Ricans Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 4 February 2015.