WEST ORANGE, NJ — The most important work one can do in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. is to teach today’s children about tolerance for all people, National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial told a gathering of residents during the West Orange Human Relations Commission’s MLK Day Celebration at The Life Christian Church on Jan. 16.
In his keynote remarks, Morial asked those in attendance to recommit to King’s dream of a society in which all people live as equals with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as stated in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. To do that, the former New Orleans mayor said they must show young people there is a difference between being tough and “bullying” others on Twitter — a reference to President Donald Trump. He said every adult has a responsibility to lead by example.
“Instill in our children a sense of understanding of who they are, but also an understanding that who they are mandates a healthy respect for others who may be of a different ethnic background or a different religion,” Morial said. “That is a human dynamic. That’s a dynamic that goes beyond politics, theology and philosophy. It’s called decency and respect.”
Morial was not the only one to stress the importance of common decency during the event. In fact, King’s legacy of compassion proved to be a major theme for most of the guest speakers.
It certainly was for Bird’s Eye Entertainment founder Ashley McFarlin Buie, who reminded the audience that King channeled God’s love throughout his life. The civil rights icon always put the needs of others before his own, Buie said. And when faced with hatred, she said, he asked God for the strength to carry on.
If there is ever going to be peace in this world, Buie stressed that people will have to do more than simply join organizations or complain about current events on social media.
“Please give yourself the opportunity to have a heart of service filled with the love of God so that his spirit may pour out of you and do all the work for us,” Buie said.
Congressman Donald Payne Jr. agreed that no one loved people more than King, who spoke out against the Vietnam War before doing so was popular and who once joined the striking sanitation workers of Memphis, Tenn. Payne also pointed out that King was an eternal optimist, promising that one day the American people would reach the “promised land.”
Payne said he is hopeful that King’s vision will one day be realized, though he admitted that the political events of 2016 have somewhat dampened his optimism. Now more than ever, he said, it is vital that people commit never to be satisfied until health care is a right for everyone, every public school is excellent, and all can obtain a job with stable wages and decent benefits. It is up to everyone to live as King would have wanted, he said.
“I ask you to strive to be, as Dr. King put it, voices of sanity and understanding amid the voices of violence, hatred and emotions,” Payne said. “Our resolve will be tested in the days ahead, but we must remember that America’s potential is unlimited. And if we come together with mutual respect, we can make change that we want to see.”
Those in attendance even heard from King himself — in a manner of speaking, of course. Sincere Silvera of Houston Academy in East Orange delivered a rousing speech in the style of the civil rights leader, decrying the police killings of black men, the prevalence of mass shootings across the country and the rise of international terrorist groups such as ISIS. Silvera said the answer to this violence is not building a better nuclear weapon, but embracing nonviolence entirely.
“We must move from violence to peace,” Silvera said to rapturous applause. “Let us in the church today not merely be a thermometer that records ideas and principles of popular opinion but a thermostat that transforms the morals of society.”
The ceremony culminated with five Spirit Awards honoring West Orange residents who are living up to King’s legacy by making a difference in the world.
Marley Dias certainly fits that criterion. The 12-year-old social activist made global headlines after launching #1000BlackGirlBooks, an initiative originally meant to collect 1,000 books featuring black female protagonists that could be donated to schools. To date her campaign has garnered more than 8,000 books, which will go to schools around the world, including the township’s own St. Cloud Elementary School. Marley herself has also received much attention for her efforts, appearing on “Ellen” and “CBS This Morning” in addition to a host of other nationally televised programs.
According to Marley, such success has been gratifying because it has enabled her to spread her message of diversity to a larger audience. Diversity in literature is important, she told the West Orange Chronicle, because it teaches children about the way the world truly is.
“As children will develop, they will learn that the world is not necessarily about them or people like them,” Marley said after the event. “There’s more to the world than just themselves. And having the education and the knowledge of how to understand and interact with those people will make it a lot easier to succeed and to be a better person.”
Mona Scott-Young was another celebrity honoree this year; she is rapper Missy Elliott’s manager and producer of the popular VH1 reality franchise “Love & Hip Hop.” In addition to her entertainment career, Scott-Young is also a renowned philanthropist, currently serving on the boards of organizations including The GrassROOTS Community Foundation, which focuses on improving the lives of impoverished women and girls.
Scott-Young told the Chronicle that her work helping young girls through GrassROOTS, which is headed by Marley’s mother, Janice Johnson Dias, is meaningful to her because girls are the future. Those who grow up to be well-adjusted women become the backbones of families and contributors to society, she said, so girls are really an important resource to invest in. And she has advice for any girl in today’s world: Be true to yourself.
“Live by a standard that you set for yourself that includes being kind, being understanding, being compassionate,” Scott-Young said prior to the event. “And always strive to be the best that you could possibly be at whatever it is you choose to do in life.”
Fellow award recipient Jane Gaertner has also dedicated her life to helping others by combating racism. Her efforts include serving as the current chairwoman of the Undoing Racism Committee at Montclair’s Unitarian Universalist Congregation. She is also a former interim chairwoman of the HRC, where she helped lead the commission’s Conversations on Race discussion groups and organized events with West Orange High School’s Diversity Club.
Yet for all this work, Gaertner told the Chronicle, society still has a long way to go. For true equality to happen, she said, people need to understand concepts such as white privilege and systemic racism, which put people of color at an automatic disadvantage. She thus urges everyone to take “Undoing Racism” training from the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, which provides tools and understanding to to people to fight the current societal power structure that perpetrates racism, she said.
Deputy Mayor Rodolfo Rodriguez’s Spirit Award came as a result of his contributions to the township, particularly through his West Orange Hispanic Foundation. Rodriguez told the Chronicle it is an honor to receive such an award since King has always been a hero to him. Still, he said just benefiting the community by bringing in guest speakers or doing charity initiatives gives him satisfaction. He said he was able to build a life and raise his daughter in West Orange after moving to the United States, so now it is his time to give back.
Henry Hamilton has also lived a life of service as an educator for 57 years, including 45 years as principal of the Houston Academy. Though it is rare to find people still working after so long, Hamilton told the Chronicle that “retirement” is not in his vocabulary. After all, he said, he enjoys working with his students too much to give it up.
Hamilton said he loves being around good people in general, so being at the MLK Day Celebration and receiving his Spirit Award was a treat for him. He said he wishes there were more events like it so people could meet and learn more about each other.
“If people better understood each other, it would be a better world to live in,” Hamilton said. “We don’t have enough of that. All types of people have to come together.”
The HRC hopes to continue bringing people together through its Conversations on Race groups, which Chairwoman Tammy Williams said are meant to increase tolerance and understanding. Of course, Williams said, residents do not need the commission to make a difference. She said all they need to do is follow King’s example.
“Meet someone you don’t know, learn about a culture you’re unfamiliar with and be tolerant of everyone and their differences,” Williams told the Chronicle after the ceremony.
Photos by Sean Quinn