On the shoulders of giants

Iconic Long Island Black activists pass the torch to the next generation

Newsday interviewed eight activists — icons who played key roles in the turbulent U.S. civil rights movement, and those of a new generation of advocates and community leaders lending their voices to the current racial reckoning and push for social justice and equality. We asked those activists their views on how the nation is confronting its past and present, and their hopes for the future.

Samantha ‘Sam’ Law, activist and advocate

“What motivated me to join the current movement of civil rights and social justice was actually a conversation that I had with my youngest son…”

Law, 33, of Wyandanch, is the president and founder of Yung Hip Professionals, a non-profit community networking group. She said her son, now 10, had seen the video of George Floyd’s murder and he was terrified. “He had a lot of questions and a lot of concerns. And honestly, it broke my heart.” 

Chelsea Cohen, student and activist

“A scaringly large amount of America did not learn from the Sixties.”

Cohen, 17, a senior at Great Neck North High School, helped organize protests, marches and other events in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. Growing up in what she calls a “fairly homogeneous town” Cohen said she’s been “a bit of an elephant in the room” and said on numerous occasions “my differences from my peers were the subject of very insensitive and just uncomfortable and fairly inappropriate comments or conversations.”

Delores Quintyne, fair housing activist

“I’m still out here trying to get young people involved so that I can sit down.”

Quintyne, 87, of Amityville, has fought for decades for fair housing on Long Island. She recalled moving to New York in the late 1950s with her husband. “We were trying to get into Levittown houses, but we were denied because of our race … that was one of my first, my very first problems of you know, of saying, ‘Oh this is not going to work. I have to do something.'”

Ezekiel Torres, activist

“The injustice surrounding their murders haunted me as I was growing up and continues to do so today.”

Torres, 21, of Shirley, said this about the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, who were killed when he was coming of age. “Now I have nieces and nephews who haven’t even reached the age of 12 yet, but have to face these same harsh realities because they’re living through Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.” Torres, a graduate of William Floyd High School, has been a key proponent in the push to get the county legislature to remove the William Floyd statue in Shirley. The signer of the Declaration of Independence, who was a member of the county militia during the Revolutionary war, was a slave owner.

Hazel Dukes, national NAACP figure

“Changing a policy and getting things done it takes more than just protest.”

Dukes, 88, a former Roslyn Heights resident who has been a leader with the NAACP for decades, says young people’s activism needs to go beyond demonstrations; they need to be involved in government on all levels and through their careers. “Each year I do see a new group of young Hazel Dukes, young Julian Bonds, young Martin Luther Kings in their own way, participating … Each generation bears a responsibility to provide leadership.”

Retired Maj. Gen. Joseph A. McNeil

“I was proud then and I’m proud now.”

McNeil, 78, of Hempstead, was one of the Greensboro Four who participated in a 1960 Woolworth lunch counter student sit-in to protest segregation in North Carolina. “We learned in hindsight that we’d caused events to happen, we could influence the world, not just a damn store in Greensboro, North Carolina, but a lifestyle where we learn to respect others.”

Theophilus Wells IV, brand strategist

“Black Americans have spent far too long existing within someone else’s game and their rules of how the game should be played.”

Wells, 34, of East Meadow, thinks there are more effective strategies than protesting. “What I’ve told my protesters, in a nutshell, is ‘why would your oppressors stop oppressing you? … you merely protesting, ranting and raving about it, and making a lot of noise, it really does nothing.'” Instead, he’d like to focus on prosperity and economic opportunities, citing Tyler Perry’s strategy of “owning things” and the adage: “He who controls the gold makes the rule.”

William Moss, educator and activist

“The younger generation needs to be the change.”

Moss is the director of academic affairs in the Lawrence school district and president of the Islip Town chapter of the NAACP. At 43 years old, the Brentwood resident considers himself, and his generation, to be the bridge between the older and younger generations. “What I’d like to say to young people is this is your time. This is your challenge. And this is not the time to be silent or scared.”

Watch the documentary

In this documentary, Newsday chronicles the death of George Floyd and the 8:46 it took for him to die at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Floyd’s death set off a firestorm of protest and a cry for social justice on Long Island and across the nation. Two veteran civil rights activists and two contemporary advocates offer their views on the current protests.

Newsday Anchor: Faith Jessie

Reporters: Dandan Zou and Daysi Calavia-Robertson

Editors: Monte R. Young, Jeffrey L. Williams, Robert Shields

Deputy editor: Tara Conry

Social media: Gabriella Vukelic

Video editors: Susan Yale, Raychel Brightman, Bobby Cassidy

Photo editor: William Perlman

Transcriber: Kathleen Diamond

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