For many in N.J., MLK Day holds special meaning after Capitol attack

Posted Jan 16, 2021

Like Thanksgiving, New Year’s and every other holiday since last spring, Martin Luther King Jr. Day will be celebrated differently this year thanks to the coronavirus pandemic: at a social distance; behind masks; virtually; and for some maybe not at all.

But there is something uniquely poignant about this year’s federal holiday marking the birth of America’s foremost civil rights leader, in that it comes less than two weeks after an attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob that flashed symbols of racial terror in its lust to upend the democratic process that King gave his life trying to make accessible to all.

“Martin Luther King was about expanding democracy,” said Lawrence Hamm, chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress civil rights group, who on Saturday will lead a march in Newark marking the holiday. “There was a whole segment of the population of the United States, African Americans, whose voting rights, whose civil rights, were being denied.”

King, who pressed for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and was there when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it, was born on Jan. 15, 1929, though the holiday is celebrated on the third Monday of January, regardless of the date. He would be 92 on Friday had he lived.

Instead, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and father of four was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, at age 39. A single bullet tore through his cheek and neck as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel while in the city to support a strike by Black sanitation workers. James Earl Ray, a segregationist and convicted felon who had escaped prison in 1967, pleaded guilty to King’s murder, though he later recanted. Ray died in custody in 1998.

Saturday’s march will be one of the few in-person MLK Day events this year. Up to now, the march has been held on the Monday holiday itself, but was scheduled for Saturday this year to encourage a higher turnout.

Newark is a largely African-American city that has adopted King as one of its own. He paid a high-profile visit to Newark less than a year after its deadly racial violence of 1967 and only eight days before his assassination. Among his several appearances during the visit, King met with a young Black activist who would later change his name to Amiri Baraka, the late New Jersey state poet lauriet and father of Newark’s current mayor, Ras Baraka.

As usual, the march will begin at the statue of Abraham Lincoln — whom King embraced as a fellow “extremist” in the cause of racial justice — outside the Essex County government complex at Springfield Avenue and West Market Street, steps away from a statue of King himself.

A county office building now under construction at the government complex will be named after King, fronted by a new, 15-foot statue of the slain civil rights leader. A few blocks away, a bust of King is mounted outside Newark’s federal courthouse, which also bears his name. Still another statue of King stands on the Newark campus of Essex County College.

Hamm, who will speak Sunday morning during an interfaith service at Union Baptist Church of Montclair, said the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol trying to overturn the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris by an overwhelmingly white mob that had been egged on by the lame duck president was more than anti-democratic

“Of course, at the center of this was racism and white supremacy,” he said. Referring to the Confederate battle flag paraded through the halls of Congress and a gallows erected outside, he added, “These were the instruments of terror that were used in the south against Black people.”

Those planning to attend the MLK Day event are urged to wear a mask and practice social distancing.

An even longer-running tribute to King is a memorial breakfast hosted by the YMCA of Newark and Vicinity. But unlike the march, the 50th anniversary “breakfast” on Monday will be among several MLK observances around the state that will be virtual only, with online programs from 9 to 11 a.m. To abide by the vision of the King holiday as a day of service, the Y is asking for contributions to benefit the area’s homeless population and families in need.

Newark is far from the only municipality honoring King.

At the southern end of the state, in Cape May County, Ocean City will hold its annual MLK Day celebration, which includes the presentation of a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Services Award, and a reading of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech by the Rev. Gregory Johnson of the local Shiloh Baptist Church.

Asked to choose a particularly timely line from what is likely King’s best known address, delivered on Aug. 28, 1963, to a massive crowd gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, Johnson said it would be the very last, when King envisioned a time when freedom would truly ring:

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!/Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

“And we are still able to do that,” Johnson said on Thursday. “The problem is, we have to take a minute to listen to each other. America has been too great of a nation for many, many years, and for us to come to January 14, 2021, and not to be able to sit down at the table and talk about the dream that Dr. King talked about would be a mischarecterization of his dream. Because we can still sit down at the table of brotherhood today.”

The public can view the pre-recorded ceremony at any time after 1 p.m. Monday, or on OCTV-97, Comcast channel 97, at various times from then until Jan. 23.

While the year-round population of the barrier island community and summer resort is more than 90% white, Ocean City spokesman Doug Bergen said, “Ocean City actually does have a strong tradition of diversity and a strong Black community.”

Other commemorations include an online youth conference sponsored by the New Jersey Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Commission on Monday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The conference, titled “Youth, We Hear You!” is intended to help young New Jerseyans “identify their gifts, talents, and opportunities,” through a series of panel discussions and workshops on justice, health equity and other topics.

One of the workshops, titled “Dr. King’s Global Impact,” will feature the consuls-general of India and Ghana, both nations visited by King, who had been influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s use of non-violent civil disobedience to throw off India’s colonial rule by Great Britain.

Literacy New Jersey posted a list of MLK Day of Service activities.

And even the commercial mom site,, has a page listing various MLK celebrations in the Garden State.

The keynote speaker of Monday’s Newark YMCA event is the Rev. Dr. Ronald Slaughter, pastor of the local Saint James AME Church. Slaughter agreed that this year’s remembrance held added significance in the wake of Jan. 6 Capitol siege, a bitter reminder that King’s vision of America as a promised land of racial harmony, justice and equality remains just that, a vision still distant from reality.

“And that’s what COVID-19 has exposed, isn’t it?” Slaughter added, referring to evidence cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the virus has hit Blacks and other people of color harder than whites.

“The inequities in terms of healthcare, the inequities in terms of wealth, and the inequities in terms of being able to get the care that’s necessary.”

But Slaughter said the virus can be a unifying force in what should be a color-blind, classless effort to contain it. And COVID-19 need not mute Monday’s commemorations, even if they have to be conducted online, without the in-person greetings that King’s admirers would exchange in less contagious times.

Instead of hugging and shaking hands, he said, “let’s embrace like-mindedness.”

“To be like-minded and to be of one accord and to be purpose-driven in terms of equality of all people does not require us to be physically connected,” Slaughter said. “It requires us to be together intellectually and together in the spirit.”


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published this page in News and Politics 2021-01-17 02:38:23 -0800