SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — South Orange and Maplewood celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day in more than one location on Jan. 15, packing the seats of the Columbia High School Auditorium and later the Cafeteria for the volunteer fair, and then in front the Maplewood Town Hall and in South Orange’s Spiotta Park, to light the luminaries residents had been decorating for the previous few weeks. Celebrating the life of King, residents came together to get involved in their communities and to fight for equality.
Before Kenny Vaughn reenacted King’s famed “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address, South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race Executive Director Nancy Gagnier welcomed residents to the event.
“We want to make this a place where everyone from everywhere can feel at home,” she said.
Larry Hamm, chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress, a nonprofit organization that works for the improvement of conditions in communities and the elimination of racism, poverty and sexism, was the keynote speaker. During his speech the audience rose to their feet several times with cheers and applause.
“One of the things that I observe about the King holiday is that it was not a holiday that was given to us,” Hamm said at the event. “We should never forget that it is a holiday that we had to fight for. At the root of all social change were people who would not give up.”
Hamm also stressed the importance of having students read King’s books.
“We have a monument, we have streets in every town, we have schools named for Dr. King,” Hamm said. “But I must ask the question — what school requires his books? Students should have this day off with an understanding of why. I can’t think of a better example for our young people than Martin Luther King.”
Hamm devoted part of his speech to King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, saying that he would not have been able to achieve what he did without her support and that of other women who were trailblazers during the civil rights movement.
“She was not just a partner, but a woman who was just as educated as he was,” Hamm said. “A woman who was just as opinionated, and who knew he needed the support to do the work that he felt God had called on him to do.”
Hamm also said that the best way to effect change on a local or national level is to vote in elections.
“So many fought so hard just to bring the legal structure of Jim Crow to an end,” he said. “Change has been made, but not enough. None of us by ourselves are going to be able to change it. We want a multiracial democracy in which everyone can live in peace and prosperity. Let us not just celebrate Martin Luther King, but let us do everything we can.”
To end the CHS ceremony, CCR Chairman Robert Marchman called on residents to turn their words into actions and make a difference.
“Silence is a betrayal,” Marchman said. “Not only articulating words, but to act is important. What are you going to do? How are you going to ensure that it is a thing of the past? We can’t be complacent. We have to do more.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic