BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Martin Luther King Jr. Day was observed by the township on Monday, Jan. 17, via a Zoom presentation, with Bloomfield Council members and invited guests participating from their own safe space. The emcee was Councilwoman Wartyna Davis.
The first speaker was U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, of the 11th Congressional District, who represents a section of Bloomfield. Sherrill recalled a King speech that considered Rip Van Winkle’s 20-year slumber.
While going up a hill on the way to his deep sleep, Sherrill said King recounted, Van Winkle passed the King George III Tavern. After his generation-long nap, while descending the hill, he saw the same tavern, but it had been renamed the George Washington Tavern.
“He slept through the Revolution,” Sherrill said.
King was saying, she continued, that a person cannot sleep when a revolution is being waged.
“Martin Luther King Jr. was a patriot, because he saw the country could be better,” Sherrill said. “And we’re not sleeping through the revolution. We are all on watch, making sure we’re passing on our freedoms.”
Mayor Michael Venezia spoke next and briefly, saying that King was not a universally popular figure 50 years ago. Venezia reminded everyone of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021, named for the congressman and civil rights activist who died in 2020. This bill, currently passed by the House but not the Senate, would require states with voting rights violations to receive judicial approval before changing voting laws.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can,” the mayor said, quoting a King statement on nonviolence. “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can.”
The mayor closed by saying he is appreciative of the diversity of Bloomfield residents. As is customary for the occasion, the Bloomfield Civil Rights Commission announced the winners of its student civil rights essay contest. Commissioner Djanna Hill-Tall did the honors. The theme this year was, “What is your dream for America?”
Hill-Tall said there were 50 submissions, all from sixth-graders, from four elementary schools. The winning essays were by Samir Rangwalla, Tamaya Hardy, Alice Kinkade, Rishauna Pryce-Stoney, Emil Gonzalez and Christopher Ordon.
The keynote speaker was Khalilah Brown-Dean, an associate professor at Quinnipiac University. She said that if people were honest with themselves, they would say they are tired of being told how important their jobs are and then not being fairly compensated for their work.
“We care as teachers, police officers, children, business owners, but we’re tired about people making judgments about our lives.”
A person who works and cares for people gets exhausted, she said.
It took a pandemic for us to understand some things, Brown-Dean added. Virtual education made people realize many families don’t have computers. This, in turn, caused a rush for Chromebooks, but many Wi-Fi systems could not handle them.
She talked about Sankofa, a mythical bird that flies forward while looking backward with an egg, symbolizing the future, in its mouth.
“It’s important for people to look back collectively to help navigate to the future,” she said.
In Brown-Dean’s opinion, King’s best address was “Beyond Vietnam,” delivered at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967.
“We are faced today,” she paraphrased from that address, “with tomorrow being today. A person can be too late.”
Brown-Dean spoke of going to Selma, Ala., to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, which was signed into law on Aug. 6, 1965. On March 7, 1965, the bridge had been a scene of bloodshed, when unarmed civil rights activists, marching to the state Capitol in Montgomery for equal voting rights, were set upon by Alabama state troopers and locals.
Brown-Dean said President Barack Obama was at the commemoration, as were two men who had been attacked by police dogs in their youth. One wept with joy at the commemoration. White and black people died violently to protect voting rights, she said.
“Each of us is called to serve,” she said. “We’ll not have another Dr. King. Many people are afraid of change. Some think we shouldn’t face the past.”
She then cited an African proverb: “If we want to go fast, we go alone. If we want to go far, we go together.”