MLK celebration highlights his message, student tenacity

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Residents of Maplewood and South Orange packed the auditorium of Columbia High School on Jan. 20 to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an annual event hosted by the Community Coalition on Race. In a break from the usual tradition, area students were the centerpiece of the ceremony, with CHS students reading poetry and screening short films, and elementary school students leading the luminary lighting at the end. The CCR’s luminary project encouraged residents to decorate paper bags that were later filled with candles and lit to demonstrate support for King’s message of peace and solidarity.

“President Obama brought hope and change, but the last four years have brought us fear,” Maplewood Mayor Frank McGehee said to begin the event, at which McGehee commemorated the 11th anniversary of Barack Obama becoming president of the United States. “Today’s program, led by our youth, is proof that there is hope. And with this 2020 election, we have a chance to move onward and upward.”

McGehee wasn’t the only adult to point out the tenacity of today’s youth. CCR Executive Director Nancy Gagnier did as well.

“Our students are fierce in thought and action,” she said at the event. “They think big and they do big things. We as parents and teachers have the duty to guide them, but we sometimes need to just get out of their way and see where they take us.”

The CCR handed out lawn signs at the ceremony in response to a white supremacist group that spread flyers around the two towns in December, in the hopes that when people drive around the two towns they will see that residents do not tolerate hate. The signs read: “Hate has no home in SOMA” and “SOMA: We stand together.” Barbara Velasquez, a CCR trustee, said at the event that a coalition to take action was formed in a matter of days after the flyers were spread.

Noah Akinnuoye, an 11-year-old Maplewood resident, spoke at the ceremony as well. He asked audience members to think about a word that means something important to them and think about it throughout the day. He shared his own word, “mountaintop,” inspired by King’s famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech from 1968, which King delivered the day before he was killed.

“Each of you channel that word throughout the rest of the day,” Noah said. “Then whatever it is, be the first one to speak up and say it.”

CHS students had made videos about the racial inequality they see in their school, and how they believe it should be fixed. They highlighted the climate crisis and the walkouts in which many students have participated over the last few months to protest that inequality, and shined a spotlight on the CHS Minority Achievement Scholars, a club that inspires academic excellence among students of color.

Before Girl Scouts and preschool students led the audience in lighting the luminaries and a band from the Bufford School of Music performed, CCR Chairwoman Kelly Quirk gave closing remarks.

“I think the grownups in the room owe you an apology,” she said to the many students in attendance. “We didn’t get it all the way right, and you are sometimes dragging us forward. We are here when you need us. To the adults, I ask us to listen to the youth. Let’s learn from the successes we have had.” 

Photos by Amanda Valentovic