ESSEX, NJ — Members of the “Essex 5” local civil rights and social and economic justice advocacy groups were honored by Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. on Friday, Feb. 15, at the 16th annual Essex County Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Awards ceremony in the Leroy F. Smith Public Safety Building.
The Essex 5 consist of the local branches of the NAACP in Irvington, Oranges-Maplewood, Montclair and Newark, as well as the Urban League of Essex County. DiVincenzo honored them as part of the county’s ongoing observance of Black History Month.
“African American History Month is a special time of the year, when we highlight the many contributions and achievements African Americans have made to our culture, economy and daily lives throughout our history,” said DiVincenzo on Friday, Feb. 15. “The four NAACP branches in Essex County and the Urban League have been representing the people of Essex County for a century. They have protested discrimination, advocated for better educational opportunities and fought for fairness in the workforce. With the coalition they have created, the Essex 5 continue to make a positive impact in the development of our communities.”
The members of the Essex 5 thanked DiVincenzo for his remarks and for acknowledging their collective efforts.
“It was an honor for the county executive to acknowledge the activities and the work that the Essex County civil rights organizations seek to achieve,” Oranges-Maplewood NAACP President Tom Puryear said on Tuesday, Feb. 19. “It is imperative that we civil rights units do not allow the acknowledgement to cause us to stray from our mission. Our catchment communities are experiencing the difficult days that we were warned about. Now is not the time to allow accolades to deter civil rights organizations from our goals and objectives.”
Puryear said he does hope, however, that recognition for the Essex 5 by DiVincenzo and other county officials will lead to more progress on civil rights and other issues they champion regularly.
“It is my hope that our unit — Oranges and Maplewood — uses the acknowledgement that the county executive has graciously provided to encourage our members to keep our eyes on the prize and to continue to address the civil rights issues of our time,” said Puryear. “Now is the not the time rest on our laurels. We must always remember, ‘If there is no struggle, there is no progress.’ The words of Frederick Douglass must be our banner in the days ahead: ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.’”
Irvington NAACP President Thurman Dancy attended the ceremony, along with some of his branch members, including Merrick Harris, the organization’s immediate past president.
“I was born during Jim Crow in North Carolina,” said Dancy on Friday, Feb. 15. “I know what the NAACP stands for and its mission. We have come a long way, but there still is a long road ahead of us.”
“I was there,” Harris said Monday, Feb. 18 of the ceremony. “I went in support of our president and I’m glad that I did go. We’ve had meetings with (DiVincenzo) in the past, to make sure we had representation in Essex County.”
Harris said this year’s event and meeting with DiVincenzo were different, because they represented the first time the Essex 5 spoke with one unified voice.
“We’re called ‘the Essex 5’ and we got together because there’s strength in numbers,” Harris said. “I do know that we want to make sure that our message is out there and they need to listen to us, as a group, not just one NAACP branch. We’ve all joined forces and make sure that we’re all heard.”
The Irvington Branch of the NAACP was formed in 1981 and Divincenzo had nothing but good things to say about the organization at last week’s ceremony.
“Its efforts have included raising awareness about the importance of voting, encouraging participation in the political process and advocating to improve the community and conditions for all people,” DiVincenzo said. “Its dedication and hard work was recognized in 2010, when they received the Outstanding Branch Award during the N.J. State NAACP Conference Convention, and continues today, with their ongoing commitment to the community.”