Town honors community leaders who embody MLK legacy

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The town’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremony on Jan. 20 honored four town residents at West Orange High School and featured performers from WOHS and the Fountain Baptist Church in Summit. Maurice Stinnett, the vice president of diversity and inclusion for BSE Global, delivered the keynote address. Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown was the recipient of the Community Award, while the MLK honorees were William Michael Barbee, Gia Akiko Garcia and Khabirah Myers.

A resident of West Orange for 18 years, Matute-Brown is beginning the second year of her first term on the Township Council, to which she was elected in 2018. An employee of the State Department of Education, Matute-Brown has also worked with the New Jersey Education Association for more than a decade.

“Today we gather to celebrate the legacy of a man whose courage, wisdom and great sacrifices led our nation in a fight for decency, civil rights and equality,” she said in her speech at the event. “Dr. King’s legacy of hope for a better tomorrow couldn’t be more appropriate to remind us that, in honor of his legacy, for our children and their better tomorrows, we have to do more than celebrate.”

Matute-Brown cited a 1967 interview with NBC that King gave, in which he discussed the continued struggles against inequality after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

“It was much easier to integrate lunch counters, public parks and guarantee the right to vote than it was to guarantee a livable income, the right to live in sanitary and decent housing, or guarantee genuine quality, integrated education,” Matute-Brown said. “I encourage those who have not listened to this speech to take time to reflect upon it. What Dr. King spoke of then is what we speak about today, 53 years later.”

She closed her speech by saying that the fight against inequality is still continuing today.

“It is because of the intended limitations of emancipation and the Civil Rights Act that we have to continue the fight in this struggle, continue to take a knee and not wait until institutions decide to give us another installment of equality but galvanizing the power of the people to make these systems change,” Matute-Brown said. “If we are to deconstruct these systems of oppression, we must start with the legacy of slavery and racism. And it is not enough not to be racist — each one of us must work on being an anti-racist. We cannot claim to be not racist when we support systems of oppression, and we support these systems when we remain silent in complicity and comfortable in apathy.”

At BSE Global, which owns and operates the Barclays Center and the Brooklyn Nets, among other professional sports teams, Stinnett creates programming tailored for inclusion and cultural competence. He was the first black man to be appointed to the job for an NBA team.

“King said we are tied together in a single tapestry of destiny,” Stinnett said in his speech at the event. “What affects one affects us all. He was affirming to them that there was no waiting. The longer we wait, not only was it affecting those who were being spewed hate at, but those who were doing the spewing. Even if it doesn’t affect you directly, it’s going to affect you indirectly.”

He encouraged those in the audience to advocate for change, using an example from his own childhood. When he was in fifth grade, he was reading at a second- or third-grade level, behind many of his classmates. His mother and teacher spoke up for him, and by the end of the school year he was reading at an eighth-grade level.

“If you’re going to have a better tomorrow, you’re going to have to advocate for it,” Stinnett said. “You’ve got to advocate even when it doesn’t affect you. It is still your responsibility to advocate for the others.”

In his address, Stinnett also called for compassion when advocating for others.

“You are not called to sympathize these communities into mediocrity,” he said. “They don’t need your sympathy. Don’t sympathize yourself into mediocrity. Everything you do, you must do with compassion. Never lose sight of the fact that you are working with human beings. Compassion with action is what produces a better tomorrow.”

Barbee is a business executive, philanthropist and filmmaker who has advocated for mental health awareness, after having survived a suicide attempt. He encouraged audience members to follow his lead in advocating for mental health awareness and services.

“As we talk about suicide and advocate for suicide services, it’s OK to have fear,” Barbee said. “Just do it afraid. No matter what the obstacle is, do it afraid. Give your all to something greater than yourself.”

Garcia is the owner of Willow & Olivia, a bakery on Main Street in West Orange. She grew up in Trinidad and Tobago and said in her speech that people supporting each other is the key to making change.

“I stand here with my ancestral gratitude, the will of my father and rose-colored glasses that there is good,” Garcia said. “Everything we do as people has hope. We can hope all we want, but we have to make change. I find myself being hopeful and not judging. Believe in yourself and take a chance on each other. Support each other and don’t be competitive. If you make it, I make it. That’s the only way hope becomes action.”

Myers, who is a lawyer and co-founder of local action group Essex Rising, used her speech at the event to point out the work that still needs to be done in West Orange.

“According to the latest census data, 7.1 percent of the population of West Orange lives below the poverty line,” she said. “In other words, more than 7 percent of West Orange residents lack the minimum level of income needed to secure the basic human needs of food, clothing and shelter. A cornerstone of Dr. King’s fight against inequity was poverty, and this led him to organize the Poor People’s Campaign. We need local Poor People’s Campaigns; we need higher wages, better jobs. We still live in a society where a person’s value is determined by their material wealth, their race, ethnicity and their gender.”

Myers discussed pay disparities between women and men and the racial disparities that exist within the broader context.

“This country gave black men the right to vote decades before it gave black women the right,” she said. “I don’t mention these statistics to be divisive but to remind us that the struggles for social equality, race equality and gender equality are symbiotic struggles, not competing struggles, and, in fact, classism, sexism and patriarchy are intra-racial phenomena, and the fight for racial justice should never marginalize the struggles for gender equality and the struggles against classism.”

In a year with a major election, Myers ended her speech by encouraging everyone in the audience who is old enough to vote to do so.

“If you’re eligible to vote, then vote in every single election,” she said. “Why? Because it’s your civic duty to do so, because you should demand your taxes be spent in a manner that benefits you and you should never leave your fate in the hands of others.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic