EAST ORANGE, NJ — Grammy-award winning singer Dionne Warwick and retired State Sen. Ronald L. Rice were honored at the 11th annual “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” Black History Month celebration at the Cicely L. Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts in East Orange.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez hosted the Feb. 11 event that served as a reminder of where African Americans were during the civil rights movement, and how far their community has come in the last 50 years.
“Think about how far we came, and the fact that there was a time where there was not an elected official of color,” East Orange Mayor Ted Green said at the event. “The era that Dionne Warwick came through as an African American woman, if there was not a God, we would not be here today.”
Green expressed gratitude and humility, recognizing the historical African American figures who marched and protested for civil rights and equality. During the ceremony, Green honored Rice and Menendez with proclamations for their work in serving New Jersey over the years.
“When I think about Ron Rice as a young man, he was the only senator who was not afraid to fight by himself,” Green said. “And he always stood on his principles, whether it was politics or otherwise. Those are the men that we need in our lives.”
U.S. Rep. Donald Payne Jr. and Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver commented on the significance of past elected officials who paved the way for equity and justice now enjoyed by today’s black community.
“Those who came before us led the way for those of us who serve today,” Payne said. “Every day I strive to carry on the legacy and expand upon their exceptional work. We cannot recognize their significance by viewing it from afar.”
After Payne’s speech, there was a musical performance by the Cicely L. Tyson elementary school choir and a step performance led by students from Cicely Tyson High School.
After the performance, Oliver said everyone stands on someone’s shoulders.
“Let’s not forget those great grandmothers and grandfathers who were part of the great migration,” Oliver said. “They were told that there were better opportunities up north, so they took those trains here and New Jersey became a hub of activity for people of color.”
While the event was held to honor historical figures and those who have made a significant positive impact on the black community, speakers did not hesitate to highlight youth and the efforts that they are making to contribute to society.
“I am tired of reading or seeing news stories about everything that is wrong with our young people,” Menendez said. “I think we can celebrate everything that is right about our young people. We have rejoiced in word and song and poetry – let us give them all a round of applause.”
Menendez also helped the audience understand the significance behind the title of the event.
“It was a 12th century philosopher who wrote, ‘we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and born aloft on their gigantic stature,’ Menendez said. “That is where this event gets its name.”
He then paid tribute to people whose achievements should never be forgotten including “giants like John Mercer Langston, who in 1855 became one of the first African Americans elected to public office in America, Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African American elected to the United States Senate in 1870 and actors like Hattie McDaniel, the first African American performer to win an Oscar in 1940.”
Still, he said the battle for equal rights continues.
“We have a lot more work to do so that every American can safely and easily exercise their right to vote,” Menendez said. “Polling locations are shut down in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods and black and brown poll workers are harassed for doing their civic duty. There is no excuse for politicians to turn back the clock of history. We are going to make sure the John Lewis Voting Rights Act gets passed.”
He then presented the “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants Award” to Warwick, an East Orange native, and Rice who was unable to attend the event. Former Councilwoman Bessie Walker accepted the award on his behalf.
“This honor means a lot to me, being recognized by my own,” Warrick said. “Thank you all for being on my side. I love you all very much. Take good care and may God continue to bless you all throughout your lives.”