IRVINGTON, NJ — People’s Organization for Progress Chairman Larry Hamm and the members of the grassroots social and economic justice activist group spent Monday, May 29, doing what they have been doing for the last 70 consecutive weeks — protesting outside the Peter Rodino Federal Building in downtown Newark in an attempt to convince President Donald Trump’s new U.S. attorney in New Jersey to open civil rights investigations into the group he calls the “Jersey 4.”
The group includes four unarmed black men who were shot and killed by police: Abdul Kamal, who was shot and killed by Irvington police; Kashad Ashford, who was killed by Lyndhurst police; Jerame Reid, who was killed by Bridgeton police; and 14-year-old Radazz Hearns, who was shot seven times by Trenton police — four times in the back.
Then Hamm and company did something unusual, precisely because Memorial Day happened to coincide with their Justice Monday tradition: They packed up their protest gear and traveled from Newark to Orange to lay flowers on the Civil War monument at the intersection of Main and Prince streets, near the border with East Orange.
According to Hamm, the ongoing struggle for freedom, justice, equality and opportunity for all Americans is directly tied to the Civil War, even though most people today don’t view it that way.
“We went up to Orange after the protest,” said Hamm on Monday, May 29. “We felt we needed to do that, since it was Memorial Day. The holiday is rooted in the black community, because the Civil War soldiers returning home were not being honored the way that the white soldiers were being recognized and honored after the war, so they started holding their own memorial events. In the future, we’re going to try and find some African-American Civil War soldiers who have never received adequate recognition.”
“The black soldiers turned the tide of the war in the Union’s favor,” Hamm said. “The Union was losing. Gen. George McClellan wouldn’t move his troops off the Potomac to go and fight the Confederate army. Then Lincoln appointed Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. The Emancipation Proclamation was a recruitment tool. It gave the blacks a reason to fight. They were fighting for their families.”
But, Hamm said, even though the Union Army needed black men to fight with them, they still did not treat them well. According to Hamm, the parallel in today’s world is all the famous black athletes and entertainers that earn millions of dollars in a country where the Jersey 4 were shot and killed.
“Those men endured racism in the Union Army,” Hamm said. “The black soldiers never received adequate provisions, clothing, equipment, including shoes. It’s crazy. But they fought anyway, because they had a cause. It’s a very complex story.”
Hamm also said recent developments in the ongoing struggle for justice and equality in New Orleans inspired him to honor the Civil War dead on Memorial Day this year.
“New Orleans Mayor Landrieu just removed four huge Confederate monuments in that city,” Hamm said. “They were huge and some of them were so big they could be seen from any direction anywhere in the city. They had to have a huge crane that they use to build skyscrapers to remove the memorial to Robert E. Lee. They had to do the removal at night, because of death threats.”
Those death threats, Hamm said, and the reaction from neighboring Southern states to Landrieu removing the Confederate monuments, are what prompted him to honor Union monuments here in the North, to remind people of the animus and economic realities that led the South to secede from the Union and form the Confederacy and the fact that many of those same sentiments and economic imperatives still exist in today’s modern world.
“The New Orleans City Council voted to remove the monuments, then opponents who wanted to keep the monuments in place sued and took them to court, but they lost,” Hamm said. “Then right next door in Alabama, they reacted by passing a law making it illegal to remove Confederate monuments in that state. They still celebrate Jefferson Davis Day — he was the president of the Confederacy — as a full-fledged holiday, where people take off from work and everything. We have to educate people about the significance of the Union memorials and what they mean and why they were built.
“The term ‘white supremacy’ comes right out of the documents that the secessionist states wrote, to explain why they were leaving the Union. That’s their words, not ours.”