ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — A bronze statue honoring civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was dedicated on Wednesday, Oct. 14. The 8-foot tall statue standing on a granite pedestal was unveiled on the 50th anniversary of King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.
“It has been almost a half century since Dr. King’s death, but his message of equality, fairness and forgiveness continues to impact and influence us today. As the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, he brought attention to racial discrimination and helped change our nation for the better,” Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. said. “Streets and a school are named in his honor and his bust is in Newark City Hall, but until now there has not been a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Essex County. Having his statue in front of the Hall of Records overlooking the street that bears his name will be a constant reminder of Dr. King’s sacrifice and contributions, keeping his dream alive.”
“To have known him was a privilege,” said Edith Savage Jennings, a civil rights icon and close advisor to the King family. “Dr. King would have been happy to know that a statue was being unveiled in New Jersey. On behalf of his family, we are all delighted you are giving him this honor.”
Essex County Deputy Chief of Staff William Payne shared stories of several meetings he had with King when Payne was a student at Rutgers University and national chairman of the NAACP Youth Work Committee. He also talked about his last encounter with King when the civil rights leader visited Newark, shortly before he was assassinated. “Dr. King invited me to accompany him to an event in New York, but I declined. I told him I would see him next time, but the next time was at his funeral,” Payne said.
The 8-foot bronze statue stands on a 3-foot tall granite pedestal and depicts Dr. King with outstretched arms. His head is tilted slightly downward so visitors to the statue can see his face. The granite pedestal is engraved with “I have a dream,” referencing his famous speech during the March on Washington, notes his Nobel Peace Prize and a series of words that describe King: hope, equality, peace, courage, love and respect.
The plaza in which the statue is located is adjacent to the Essex County Hall of Records and looks out on to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. It has been renamed as the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza, which is engraved in the base of the fountain at the site.
An accompanying bronze plaque begins with a quote from Mahatma Ghandi: “A small body of determined spirits, fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission, can alter the course of history.” It continues: “At a time in American history, when the need for change was evident, Martin Luther King Jr., a young Georgia minister, rose to lead a nationwide Civil Rights Movement.
He guided a bus boycott that ended segregated seating, supported integrated groups of ‘Freedom Riders’ who shattered old, southern ‘Jim Crow’ laws, assisted young people conducting ‘sit-ins’ at segregated lunch counters, and led hundreds of peaceful protest marches. Brilliant, dignified, persuasive and eloquent, he always stressed non-violence, even in the face of adversity. He inspired thousands of people, of all colors, races and religions, to join hands, and more than 200,000 supporters gathered in Washington, D.C., for his iconic ‘I have a dream…’ oration.
As president of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, he brought attention to sources of national discrimination, helping to gain passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, forever changing the course of American history. Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, on this very day, 50 years ago. Assassinated in 1968, he is one of the most respected and revered of all human rights activists.”
“When I think of Dr. King’s legacy, I think of all these students and the future leaders being developed in our schools. Life’s most persistent question is what are we doing for others,” said NJ state Sen. and Essex County Deputy Chief of Staff Teresa Ruiz.
“We are sitting at the feet of a man who was the most transformative figure in the world. As we all celebrate this monument to Dr. King, look inward and ask yourself what you are doing to fulfill his dream,” former Assembly speaker Sheila Oliver said.
“I don’t know if we understand how spiritual and important this day is,” Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said. “This is a time celebrate Dr. King as he lived and as how we all should live,” he pointed out. “Today is a historic day as we unveil the likeness of someone who has been a hero to generations. Today is an opportunity to have Dr. King’s vision carried on by future generations,” said Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones, who described Dr. King as the ‘Prince of Peace’ and the ‘Drum Major of Justice’.”
The statue was created by Jay Warren, an artist from Oregon who also has created the Rosa Park Statue, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. Statue, Gov. Brendan Byrne Statue and U.S. Rep. Donald M. Payne Statue at the Essex County Government Complex and the Althea Gibson Statue in Essex County Branch Brook Park. The project was funded with donations from Education and Health Centers of American Inc., Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, Barnabas Health, Ten Park Place Associates, 765 Management LLC, PSEG Foundation and New Jersey Shares, Inc./Verizon.
Assemblywoman Grace Spencer said in January she was lamenting the fact that there was nowhere she could take her newborn daughter to celebrate the legacy of King. “Little did I know that what I was thinking would come to fruition, because the county executive was watching the same documentary about Dr. King,” she added.
King was born in 1929 in Georgia. His grandfather and father were both ministers and pastors of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He studied at Morehouse College, Crozer Theological Seminary and earned a doctorate from Boston University’s School of Theology. He met Coretta Scott while working on his doctorate in Boston and they would marry and have four children.
“Dr. King was an ordinary person who did extraordinary things,” said the Rev. Dr. M. William Howard Jr. of Bethany Baptist Church, who attended Morehouse College with King. “This statue is a reminder, inspiration and source of encouragement for those who walk by and see it,” he added.
In 1955, he was recruited to be the spokesperson for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was started when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. The boycott lasted 381 days and resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that racial segregation in transportation was unconstitutional. Two years later, King was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He would have this leadership position until his assassination in 1968.
“I can’t help but look at this program and see all the women speaking today. We owe some of that to Dr. King,” said Deborah Prinz, whose father, Rabbi Joaquim Prinz of Temple B’nai Abraham, was a close friend of Dr. King’s. “This statue will remind people of the example set by Dr. King and others who fought injustice with passion, persistence and the spoken word,” she said.
In 1963, King led a nonviolent civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Ala. Later that same year, he was one of the driving forces behind the March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
The following year, at the age of 35, he became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act making discrimination illegal in hiring, public accommodations, education and transportation in 1964. The next year, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, eliminating racial voting barriers. Between 1965 and 1968, King broadened his focus to economic justice and international peace. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.
“The best way we can honor Dr. King is to continue his work,” Freeholder President Britnee Timberlake said.
“Our appreciation of Dr. King’s work and his legacy have grown and grown over time,” Sheriff Armando Fontoura said.