WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Human Relations Commission hosted West Orange residents at The Life Christian Church on Monday, Jan. 15, to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. The celebration recognized police officers and community members who have forged the path that King started, and five residents were also honored with the Hands on Freedom Award, given to those active in changing the community for the better.
Lt. Charles Bryant was the first person recognized; a police officer for 25 years, he is the first black lieutenant in the West Orange Police Department.
“I want to give everyone a chance to fulfill new dreams,” Bryant said. “I’m able to serve because of Dr. King, otherwise I would not be here and be a police lieutenant today.”
One of Bryant’s colleagues, Sgt. George Lopez, was also recognized at the ceremony. Lopez is the first Puerto Rican sergeant in the WOPD.
“We wanted to move here because we liked what we saw,” Lopez, who was born and raised in Newark, said about his family’s move to West Orange. “This is a diverse community, and I thank you for having me here today.”
HRC Chairwoman Tammy Williams referred to airline pilot Carole Hopson as a “statistical marvel” because there are fewer than 100 black female pilots in the country. Hopson wants to change that by sending 100 black girls to flight school.
“There are less than 100 of us who fly for a living,” she said. “That’s an outrage. We have to change that. Young girls have to think of themselves as pilots, because if I can do it, they can do it. To parents, consider careers for your children that aren’t obvious. That’s what Dr. King wanted.”
Divorce coach, advocate and philanthropist Tamara Harris, who was keynote speaker at the event, has been a social worker and taught at nearby Montclair State University, as well as at New York University.
“What we perceive as another day off had an arduous fight to make happen,” Harris said about Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “I had it seared into my teenage brain that people would always think that people who look like me should not have the right to exist. We are living in disheartening times of incivility. The global community and our children are watching.”
She added that there is no way to move backward on progress, only forward.
“Each generation has to make its own dent in the fight for justice,” Harris said. “We have no choice but to move forward, no matter the people who want to take us back to times that were not so good.”
Harris also stressed leadership in her speech, saying that becoming involved in causes and voting in all elections are the best ways to make an impact at any level.
“If you’re going to join a movement, it’s important to be a leader,” she said. “The most important thing you have is your vote. No one can take that away from you. You have to keep moving forward.”
Janice Johnson Dias was the first honoree to receive the Hands on Freedom Award. The founder and president of the GrassROOTS Community Foundation, a national public health and social action organization that supports health challenges facing women and girls, Dias has lived in West Orange for 14 years.
“I conceptualize freedom as a goal,” Dias said in her speech accepting the award. “We achieve freedom when we join with others. We must work harder to fight for them. We leave here with the commitment to recreating and building a more just world.”
The second Hands on Freedom Award went to Lou Mignone, a retired West Orange police detective and a soccer coach in the Mountain Top League, who was unable to be at the ceremony to receive his award because he was at an overnight soccer retreat with one of his teams.
The third award was presented to a couple, Monique and Eric Pryor. Monique Pryor is the president of the North Jersey chapter of Jack and Jill, a nonprofit group that helps the growth and development of children through health and social programs. She is also the founder of Mothers and Daughters Making a Difference, which financially supports other organizations that help women and children. Eric Pryor is a director at the Harlem School of the Arts in New York City, and is a former president of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit, which reached thousands of students with its education outreach program each year.
Monique Pryor spoke for both herself and her husband, imploring the young people in the audience to become involved in their community and make positive changes.
“To our young people, we have a lot of hate in our midst today and we have to fight it,” she said. “Be a blessing to someone else so they can be a blessing to you.”
The celebration ended with Elizabeth Redwine, a member of local advocacy and action group Essex Rising receiving the Hands on Freedom Award. She said that she shared the award with the members of the group, and the people who have been involved in the community and the government.
“This is honoring a group of neighbors, friends and friends of friends who met by word of mouth,” she said. “Whether you are a member or not, it is with you that I accept this award. We have refused to sit down and be sat and instead stood up to fight.”
Redwine ended her speech with a Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic