PATERSON, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave one of his last speeches at a church in Paterson.
People who were there that day, almost 52 years ago, returned to the site Monday to show CBS2’s Lisa Rozner how it changed their lives and their city.
As Charley Mae Garrison belted out words steps away from where Dr. King spoke, Russell Graddy remembered guarding a back door nearby.
“He was a very powerful man with a huge voice. When we embraced each other I actually felt something,” Graddy said of MLK Jr.
It was March 27, 1968. The then-named Community Baptist Church of Love was at capacity. Thousands, including now-Councilwoman Ruby Cotton, waited outside.
“I was actually on that corner that you couldn’t get down here to the church,” Cotton said.
According to Monica Council-Miles, King said to one of Paterson’s first black detectives, her father, the late Charles Council, “No, let them come. I want them to hear what I have to say. Then they had to bring out speakers and amplifiers.”
King spoke for 20 minutes.
Graddy, a civil rights activist, said he asked King to come to highlight Paterson’s segregation struggles.
“When he said ‘I’m not worried and I’m not scared,’ oh …,” Garrison said, remembering the moment.
Eight days later, King was assassinated.
The son of the late Rev. Frederick Lagarde, who lead the church, found a local artist to paint Jesus black. Paterson remained calm, as other cities rioted.
“My father always pulled from Dr. King the lessons of just, you know, being peaceful, even in your protest,” Rev. Frederick Lagarde Jr. said.
Since that day, renovations have been made to the church, including changes to the pews. However, efforts have been made to preserve the pulpit where Dr. King spoke.
And this past summer, across the street, Paterson leaders built a memorial park with more than 200 volunteers, including the local chapter of the Black Professional Firefighters.
“It’s a monumental piece, especially here in a ward where something like this is needed,” Bronze Heat member Roshawn Davis said.
“He showed us that you can actually do a lot more than you think you can do,” Cotton said of King.
That lead Cotton to pursue politics, and she hopes the park inspires others to pursue their dreams.
The building is now home to the Bethel AME Church, and the street outside is now called Freedom Boulevard. The former congregation moved, but still has members who witnessed King’s speech.