MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange and Maplewood community gathered at Columbia High School on Jan. 21 to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, welcoming Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver as the guest speaker at the Community Coalition on Race’s annual celebration. After the event, residents signed up to get involved in local organizations at the Volunteer Fair until the sun went down and it was dark enough to light the luminaries residents had decorated in the weeks beforehand.
After members of the CCR and South Orange Village President Sheena Collum welcomed the public to the event, the audience heard Naresh Jain, the trustee emeritus of the Parliament of the New World’s Religions in Chicago, a conference that brings together adherents from several religions to find common ground and create dialogue. Jain talked about Jainism, an Indian religion that centers on teachings of nonviolence.
“I had learned about the Montgomery bus boycott and when Dr. King visited India the air was full of talk about non-violence,” Jain said at the event. “Nonviolence is the basis of the Jain religion. Just as no darkness is light all around, nonviolence is love all around.”
In his remarks, Jain also spoke about how people communicate with one another.
“People fear each other because they don’t know each other,” he said. “They don’t know each other because they aren’t communicating. We must cherish each other or we will perish. We will either cherish together or perish together.”
Before he introduced Oliver, Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca thanked the CCR for all they do in the two towns.
“I was on the Township Committee 23 years ago when we started discussing funding the CCR and I’m not sorry we did it,” he said at the event. “It’s made such a difference in the community.”
According to DeLuca, keynote speaker Oliver also has worked and continues to work to make a difference in the community. Oliver is the first woman of color to serve in statewide elected office in New Jersey history. First elected to the General Assembly in 2003, she became speaker in 2010, becoming the first African-American woman in state history to serve as such and just the second in the nation’s history to lead a state legislative house. Oliver is a 40-year resident of East Orange and a native of Newark.
In her speech Oliver said South Orange and Maplewood have demonstrated for decades that they embrace what King taught during the civil rights movement.
“It is unbelievable that he only walked the Earth for 39 years,” she said at the event. “I don’t know that we will ever again see someone like that.”
Oliver also quoted King in her speech when she said, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
“I understood at a very early age that one of the things that separated us was being steeped in ignorance,” Oliver continued. “What ignorance means is lack of knowledge. Dr. King understood that amid injustice, at the root is ignorance. If you do not have knowledge and if you do not get an education, you will not get past that ignorance. We must be accepting of all ideologies, even when we don’t agree with them and that is very, very hard to do.”
After performances by the CHS Special Dance Company and the Maplewood Middle School Select Choir, CCR Chairman Robert Marchman provided closing remarks.
“As we celebrate what would have been Dr. King’s 90th birthday, I question how much of his vision came true,” Marchman said at the event. “We are in the midst of a government shutdown that is based around pushing hate. We must encourage our government officials to end the shutdown.”
He ended his speech by asking members of the community to work together.
“I hope we in this community continue to be a beacon of light,” Marchman said. “We’re all in the same boat together at this point. Either united we stand or divided we fall.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic