NEWARK, NJ — The 300 students, faculty and staff who filled the Mary Burch Theater for Essex County College’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial program on Jan. 15 learned firsthand about the civil rights struggles in the 1960s and 1970s from someone who was there. The enthusiastic audience also received a charge from guest speaker Benjamin F. Chavis “to keep pushing forward.”
Chavis, who grew up in North Carolina, was a teenage volunteer with King.
“At 14, I was the youngest staff member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” he said. King was that organization’s first president.
He was also a member of the so-called “Wilmington 10,” who fought to desegregate the schools in that North Carolina city and ended up serving time in prison in the early 1970s. He is currently CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association and has served in NAACP leadership roles.
The civil rights leader then took the crowd through some of the early struggles and then into the present and the future, always linking his message to King.
“If he was here today, Dr. King would tell you to get the best education you can. That’s the key to opening doors for the rest of your lives,” he said.
Regarding education, Chavis recalled that when he was a young volunteer, King gave the staff a full required reading list. Those early lessons led Chavis to earn not only his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, but also a master’s in divinity from Duke University and a doctorate from Howard University.
“You can’t change what you don’t understand. We need a new generation of freedom fighters. Work to improve the quality of your life and please don’t let anything divide us. Dr. King’s spirit is still very much alive,” Chavis said.
Chavis sharply criticized the current federal government shutdown, saying, “The White House doesn’t understand God’s House. Dr. King today would be saying no to Donald Trump.”
The audience was also entertained by the Essex County College Choir, led by associate professor of music Richard Alston, and students from Arts High School in Newark. Students from Newark’s Central High School and Newark Tech High School also attended the program.
Essex County College President Anthony E. Munroe called the Nobel Peace Prize winner “a giant for mankind. Many of the issues and struggles that Dr. King called out 50 to 60 years ago still exist today in different forms.”
The program was presented by the college’s Africana Institute under the direction of Akil Khalfani.
Photos Courtesy of Akil Khalfani