Whenever family and friends gather to commemorate and memorialize, it’s an occasion of memory and reflection, and these elements abounded Tuesday evening at St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn, where the lives of Michael Griffith and Cedric Sandiford were recollected.
A generation has passed since Griffith and Sandiford encountered a hateful mob of young white men in Howard Beach after their car broke down and they sought assistance. Although all the speakers, particularly Charles Hynes, then special prosecutor and later district attorney of Brooklyn, recounted the tragedy, the gathering was mainly one to pay tribute to the reporters who covered the incident and the subsequent trial.
Many of those assembled had participated in similar memorials for Griffith and Sandiford in 2006 and 2011, when the family honored four individuals, including former Mayor David Dinkins. On the recent occasion, 11 awards were given to such stalwarts as the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Rev. Herbert Daughtry and the Rev. C. Vernon Mason, all of whom either led or were actively engaged in the massive demonstrations back in the late ’80s.
Former Gov. David Paterson, who received an award in 2011, accepted the beautifully engraved award for Dinkins, and with his usual flair delivered a speech noting that “Michael Griffith was the Emmett Till of our generation.”
The reverends Sharpton and Daughtry also placed their remarks in a historical context, and Sharpton added, “We should really be giving an award to Jean Griffith-Sandiford [Griffith’s mother and Sandiford’s wife] for her strength and courage.”
A coterie of journalists was called to the podium by Vinette Pryce, herself a recipient of an award from the family in 2011. Each of them, including this reporter, said a few words about their role and what it meant to them and their careers. Dominic Carter, Joseph Fried, Mary Murphy, Peter Noel, Magee Hickey and Sarah Wallace were among the awarded. And, as in the past, Nina Krauss, the forelady of the jury, and attorney Stephen Murphy attended. Murphy defended one of the accused, getting him off, while Hynes was able to get convictions of three others.
Along with the presentations there were rewarding, celebratory moments from poet Jennifer Falu and vocalist Phyllis Smith, particularly her rousing rendition of “Take Me to the King.” Fr. Frank Black and radio host Lenny Green provided both the spiritual and commentary so common to such occasions.
Keynote Speaker Richard Green, the noted community activist from Brooklyn, like many of the award recipients, focused his comments on the family, “We have to embrace them,” he said, in the same way they have embraced the community.
Smith closed out the ceremony with, “See You Again,” and it underscored Green’s last words. “If there’s another memorial five years from now, I will be glad to be there.” And if Christopher Griffith and his mother are around, that’s a moment we can almost count on.