Coalition on Race celebrates King’s legacy

The MLK Observance Community Choir performs on Monday, Jan. 17, at the South Orange–Maplewood Community Coalition on Race’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance, which was held virtually this year.

SOUTH ORANGE/MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange–Maplewood Community Coalition on Race hosted its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremony virtually on Monday, Jan. 17, ending with the lighting of luminaries across the two towns to honor King. Hosted by actor and Maplewood resident Sipiwe Moyo, the program featured speakers and performers from Columbia High School, South Orange and Maplewood, including the MLK Observance Community Choir, led by Holland Jancaitis, the director of music ministries at Morrow Church.

CCR Executive Director Nancy Gagnier said the ceremony would honor the King family’s request that celebrations on the holiday act as a call to action on voting rights.

“Voter suppression is a crisis that stands in the way of racial justice,” Gagnier said during the ceremony. “The Coalition on Race has a mission that is critical to creating communities in which racial integration is the norm, true inclusion in all aspects of community life is expected and racial equity is the priority in community policies and practices.”

South Orange resident Kenny Vaughan read excerpts from two of King’s sermons, the first from February 1968 at Ebenezer Baptist Church and the second from August 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. After Vaughan’s performance, SOMA Action Climate Committee co-chairperson Jennifer Nielsen spoke about her involvement on the committee, saying that being involved in organizations like SOMA Action can create positive change.

“Working with a community of people who share your values and hopes for positive change is like a great big, warm bear hug,” Nielsen said. “It helps channel some of those feelings of rage and impotence into feelings of power and purpose. It is easy to become paralyzed with despair and fear at the extent of the damage that it may no longer be possible to prevent. But acting brings comfort and hope that we can make progress.”

Kim Chan, the deputy director for advancement at National Sawdust, a music incubator in Brooklyn, spoke about how art can inform anti-racist work.
“I have spent my life working with artists and arts organizations to stimulate dialogue about contemporary culture and our collective responsibility to find shared paths toward a more just and humane world,” Chan said during the ceremony.

She spoke about the anti-Asian racism she and her daughter have experienced, which got worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I do not want other families to have this same experience, which is all too common across generations of Asian American students in our district,” Chan said. “We are an intergenerational coalition doing this work by building on the foundation of our elders, who understood that the power of art is necessary to establish justice and beauty, so that those who come after us do not have to start at ground zero.”

Gregory Omar Osborne, an actor, dancer and producer, also spoke about art and anti-racism as part of the program. Osborne is the founder of Progressive Theater, a theater company based in Maplewood that tells stories about marginalized communities.

“I founded Progressive Theater aiming to tell culturally enriched stories that empower people of color while captivating audiences with the focus being on the change I wanted to see in the arts,” Osborne said at the ceremony. “That change was representation. The effect Progressive Theater has had has, I think, shaken our community.”

Other speakers at the event included David Harris, Tia Aery, CCR board of trustees Chairperson Kelly Quirk, CCR Program Director Audrey Rowe, Maplewood Mayor Dean Dafis and South Orange Village President Sheena Collum.
“Throughout this program, we are all being reminded to not just admire and celebrate Dr. King, but to honor his legacy by taking action,” Rowe said.

The full program can be viewed online at