MAPLEWOOD/SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Equality and integration is hard work, but luckily South Orange and Maplewood have the Community Coalition on Race to light the way. On Jan. 18, the CCR sponsored the 15th annual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his message of equality, tolerance and freedom.
The event, held at Congregation Beth El in South Orange and co-hosted by the First Presbyterian & Trinity Church of South Orange, exemplified King’s message of working toward a brighter tomorrow through more than just speech.
With music provided by the Bufford School of Music faculty band and the Voices of Harmony choir, as well as dancing by the Columbia High School special dance team, the event flowed and drew the community together, regardless of attendees’ skin color, religion or any other possible difference.
The event ended poignantly when everyone gathered joined hands to sang “We Shall Overcome,” led by clergy leaders and officials such as Sen. Bob Menendez; Assemblywoman Mila Jasey; Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca; Maplewood Deputy Mayor Nancy Adams; Maplewood Committeeman Greg Lembrich; South Orange trustees Walter Clarke, Stephen Schnall and Deborah Davis Ford; Maplewood Police Chief Robert Cimino; Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker; BOE members Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad, Donna Smith, Maureen Jones, Chris Sabin and Annemarie Maini, among others.
South Orange resident Michelle Miller, an award-winning journalist, served as the featured speaker, calling upon everyone to make sure equality and integration is a reality rather than just “a dream.”
CCR Executive Director Nancy Gagnier drove that point home.
“People don’t always understand that (a diverse and integrated community) doesn’t just happen,” Gagnier said. “Diversity can be obvious and easy to many, but the path to integration is not always obvious and is rarely easy.”
Shelley Slafkes, who co-led the CCR’s MLK event-planning team, stressed the importance of such an event, especially in today’s world when in which racist speech and other types of vitriol are regularly spewed.
“Balanced against the hateful speech we hear every day on the news and outside these doors,” Slafkes said, “here in South Orange I have hope.”
Beth El’s Rabbi Jesse Olitzky agreed, adding that, with all the hate speech out there, “our voices of prayer need to be louder.”
But, sticking with the event’s theme, he cautioned attendees that they must do more than just pray or speak out — they must act.
“It is no accident that after our interfaith service, we’ll have a volunteer fair, for we must do more than just pray,” Olitzky said. “We must pursue justice, we must chase justice, we must run after it, we must make it happen.”
The Rev. Valencia Norman of First Presbyterian & Trinity Church reminded those gathered that equality, integration and respect “is not just talk, it’s about walking together.” Norman then read excerpts from King’s inspirational “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Coalition Chairwoman Leila Gonzalez Sullivan quoted President Barack Obama, who said, “One voice can change a room, and if one voice can change a room, then it can change a city” — “or even a town or two towns,” Gonzalez Sullivan added — “and if it can change a city, it can change a state, and if it can change a state, it can change a nation, and if it can change a nation, it can change the world.”
“Your voice, each one of you in this room, and my voice can change the world,” Gonzalez Sullivan said.
No one hit these points harder than the featured speaker though, whom Gagnier called “a warm and delightful person who is a powerful journalist because of her passion in asking questions and listening.”
Miller — who is married to former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, a leader in the National Urban League — is an award-winning CBS News correspondent. She recently provided extensive coverage of the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., following the shooting death of the black Michael Brown by a white police officer; she has also covered school shootings and devastating storms, such as Sandy, Irene and Katrina. In 2015, Miller won an Emmy Award for her multiplatform series following a group of high school dropouts attempting to turn their lives around. In 1998, she received an Edward R. Murrow Award and was named Woman of the Year by the National Sports Foundation; she has also been the recipient of the Award of Excellence from the National Association of Black Journalists.
Nearly overcome with emotion, Miller spoke of King, calling him a man — a man with fears and flaws — who rose to the occasion, which is what makes him a hero.
“He was a man who pledged himself to the people, gave himself to the community,” Miller told the SOMA community.
While she praised the national celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day — excited that, as a paid national holiday, “we get paid to celebrate his life” — she also acknowledged that there is still much work to be done, especially as six states celebrate King’s birthday concurrently with Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s.
“I wonder what Dr. King would think of the issues of today,” Miller said. “Many of the issues he fought and died for are still present today,” she continued, naming issues such as racism, war, poverty, bullying, intolerance, injustice and many more.
While Miller acknowledged that she cannot know what King would say today if he had not been assassinated, she believes that he would certainly speak out if he considered something to be an injustice. According to Miller, King saw such problems as a failure of the country to protect its people.
“Today King is portrayed as a caricature of his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” Miller said, “but it is really the ‘Broken Promises’ speech.
“He is so iconic and quoted so much because he pushed us to find the moral courage to speak up,” she continued. “We celebrate his courage, conviction, quest for peace, for a nation that keeps its faith with its people. … He is our hero because we need desperately to hear words of hope on the darkest of dark days.”
And these are certainly dark days. Miller related stories of racism and intolerance that were difficult to hear — stories of people assuming the economic class of another based on their skin color and stories of teens being taught that white is right. “It’s humiliating; it is being a bully,” Miller cried out.
“Dr. King reminds us of our responsibility to do, not just to be,” Miller said, citing recent examples of civil unrest as attempts that are being made to improve our country. “A riot is the language of the unheard. I have been to Ferguson and covered it; I’ve lived in South Central L.A. when my city was burning.”
Although she sees so much hatred and intolerance in the world, Miller praised the work done in South Orange and Maplewood, which she lauded as a place that is home to blended families of all types. She called Maplewood-South Orange a place where children thank the community for providing them the opportunity to grow up in such a diverse place.
“They see differences and it’s OK; they love it,” Miller said. “It is not colorblindness; it is seeing the world for all its beauty.
“Our job is keeping King’s dreams alive,” she concluded. “Let’s dig in and do the hard work of making it so.”