On Monday, January 16th, the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race hosted the 16th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Observance at Columbia High School in Maplewood for the first time. Hundreds of people of all ages filled the auditorium to honor Dr. King through music, a sharing of interfaith readings and an affirmation of Dr. King’s call to action and service. Performances included jazz selections by the Bufford School of Music Faculty Band; Columbia High School student Theresa Desir sang “To Be Young, Gifted and Black;” and The Children’s Chorus sang “Freedom is a Constant Struggle.”
An inspirational speech was given by the guest speaker LaShawn Y. Warren, the newly appointed Vice President of Faith and Progressive Policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington D.C. Ms. Warren remarked on the irony of celebrating Dr. King’s legacy the same week our country will inaugurate a new president whose values seem to stand in complete contradiction of everything Dr. King stood for: love, unity, social justice, peace and equality. She continued, “We find ourselves in uncharted territory, from immigration, policing, women rights, gun violence, climate change and growing income inequality.” She told the audience that the road ahead of us will not be easy and that we must consider how are actions affect others. “Today we must pause to reflect what we have done with these freedoms. Have we become self-centered and complacent? Do we take positions on things that only affect us personally? Any injustice anywhere to anyone concerns all of us because we are all part of the same family.”
Warren ends her speech with a call to action as she declares that we are at a crossroads in America and must challenge flawed and hate-filled narratives about people based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or culture. “We must reach across divides and engage with people we don’t normally talk with. Engaging them forces us to see the humanity in others and commonalities in the most unlikely places.” Warren continues, “Human progress comes from tireless efforts and persistent work from men and women. Let us carry on his legacy to challenge this nation to live up to its highest ideals and creeds. Silence is not an option. We must stand together. Tell our truth, one that encompasses love, justice, equality, unity peace and hope.”
The celebration concluded with participants joining hands across the auditorium and singing “We Shall Overcome.” The Volunteer Fair following the observance featured local community groups that provide opportunities to serve the community, including feeding the poor and mentoring young people. Youth were invited to help stuff bags filled with toiletries for the homeless.
Nancy Gagnier, Executive Director of the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race shares, “It was heartening at this difficult transition in our nation to see so many people come together to show their commitment to Dr. King’s vision and to racial integration and true inclusion in our communities.”
The luminary project concluded the day of observance. South Orange and Maplewood residents placed decorated luminaries with votive candles in front of their homes as a sign of peace.
For more photos from the day, click here.