Clerics, activists and health experts from Greater Morristown had plenty of sharp observations about race, justice and the pandemic at Monday’s Martin Luther King Day virtual breakfast.
Some of the most compelling speakers, however, were African American high school and college students, whose grasp of King’s legacy was tested by this month’s Capitol riot.
“I was disgusted, I was angry, I felt humiliated…like the world was laughing at us,” Rutgers freshman Matthew Parchment said during a recorded panel discussion. He believes racism is baked into U.S. institutions, which must be rebuilt “from the ground up,” starting with police departments.
Images of white supremacists entering and leaving the Capitol so easily on Jan. 6, 2021, was in stark contrast to police responses last year at Black Lives Matter demonstrations, students said.
“If Black Lives Matter protesters did the same exact thing, more than half of them would be in cuffs–or dead,” said Gianna Marshall, who attends Newark Arts High School.
VIEW REPLAYS OF MLK DAY BREAKFAST AND SERVICE
“It just blew my mind to see that wow, okay, cops are capable of prioritizing human bodies over property. They just choose when and where not to do it,” said Madison Tatum, a recent graduate of the University of Virginia.
Yet despite the grotesque scenes from the Capitol, and a society that still has schools named for Robert E. Lee, Tatum said the United States is inching closer to the “beloved community” espoused by Martin Luther King more than a half century ago.
The Capitol insurrectionists belong to a “very, very loud minority, and it’s dying out…every year we’re getting a little bit better at loving each other as a people,” she said.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin. Click/hover on images for captions:
Nonviolence and self-reflection are paramount, said Roxbury High School student Monique Whitfield. Creating a “community of light” starts with eliminating hatred and resentment of ignorant people, she said.
“It’s not our responsibility to try to educate them, because if they don’t want to learn, they don’t want to learn. It’s not our responsibility to try to make them feel bad for hurting us, because it’s obvious that they do not care about us. So we shouldn’t even try.
“I think that once we finally put these blinders on, and are able to focus on ourselves, that’s when we’re going to be able to get stronger together, and we’re not going to be fazed by the little people who are still saying racial slurs and who are still trying to keep us down,” Whitfield said.
Other panels discussed health, economics and social injustice. It was the 36th annual interfaith breakfast organized by Morristown’s Martin Luther King Observance Committee, and the first one held online, because of the pandemic.
A virtual choir performed, and a worship service was streamed later by Morristown’s Calvary Baptist Church to commemorate the birth of the Civil Rights icon 92 years ago.
CHAOS AND CANCER
Never in modern times has the need been greater for “people of goodwill to stand up and lift their voices in rejection of the politics of hate, the politics of division, the politics of dividing this nation along religious and regional lines,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League.
This chaos and cancerous polarization presents an “opportunity to stand up and build a better nation,” he said.
That entails creating a fairer justice system, according to panelists who decried the growth of the world’s largest prison industry, a big business that has jailed Blacks in disproportionate numbers during a failed “war on drugs” replete with mandatory sentencing laws.
“This industrial prison complex employs thousands and generates billions in profits,
at the expense of African Americans’ freedom,” said Yasin Cobb, a former inmate who now co-chairs the justice department of the Morris County NAACP.
Since 1970, the population in state and federal prisons has swollen from less than 200,000 to more than 2.3 million, Cobb said. Fifty-six percent of prisoners on death row are Black, he said.
“My point is, lynchings have not stopped. They’ve just obtained a veneer of respectability,” Cobb said.
Mass incarceration “has decimated Black families,” added the Rev. Herman Scott, chaplain at the Morris County Jail.
In New Jersey, 86,000 people are sentenced to prisons each year. Three-fourths of inmates are Black, even though African Americans comprise only 44 percent of the state population, Scott said.
That’s the greatest disparity in the nation, and Morris County has the dubious distinction of having the worst disparity in the Garden State, said Frank McMillan, an activist with New Jersey Together.
Black residents of Morris County are 22 times more likely than whites to be in state prisons, said McMillan, who has pressed the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office for reforms.
“Dr. King taught us repeatedly…real changes don’t happen without tension,” McMillan said.
“It will take tension internally at the prosecutor’s office to address the practices that have led to this, and it will take tension and pressure from those of us in civil society demanding change and saying, it is not okay, that we have the worst racial disparities, in the state with the worst racial disparities, here in Morris County, where we can do better.”
SIGNS OF HOPE
There were words of encouragement, and hope.
Martin Luther King challenged people of little means to achieve great things. This remains possible in the midst of a pandemic that has hit so many people hard, said Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. of the Bethel AME Church in Morristown.
The church’s Table of Hope soup kitchen has expanded its mobile operations across Morris County, thanks to generous partners and volunteers who stepped up, he said.
“We can dare to dream. We can dare to have new visions. We can change this world, and make it a better place—not only for this nation, but for the world,” Williams said.
In a crisis, people always can dig deeper and find ways to help each other, the pastor said.
“Don’t let fear of not having enough, don’t let fear of not being enough, stop you from activating your faith to make a difference.”
Panelist Ken Edwards offered business survival tips for this “period of economic Darwinism,” which has devastated small businesses and brought the nation’s economic divide “into sharp focus.”
Proactive measures are crucial in this pandemic; sitting back and merely reacting “will be the kiss of death,” he cautioned.
- Develop an economic survival plan, and stick to it.
- Try to set aside four- to six months of liquid assets.
- Steer clear of get-rich-quick schemes; the stock market is risky for anyone without disposable cash.
- Cut back on discretionary spending.
- Don’t cut back on insurance payments.
- Mind your credit score; don’t use your credit card for paying taxes and other bills.
- Maintain a firm wall between your business and personal finances, to protect your personal assets.
- Seek advice from tax – and business professionals if needed.
Small business owners can survive COVID-19, Edwards said, but “it’s not going to be without angst.”
History offers some inspiration, said James Howard of the Black Inventors Hall of Fame, who cited examples of empathy and perseverance.
Onesimus, a slave, advocated for smallpox inoculations. Early 20th century African American entrepreneur Elijah McCoy–“the Real McCoy”–refused to roll over in the face of prejudice.
They embodied a “perpetual optimism” that’s needed now, Howard said.
“You are born with the innate qualities to persevere… to not look on the negative and the bad, but to look at the positive,” he said.
Simple yet powerful acts such as wearing a mask and practicing social distancing convey empathy and a passion for life, Howard said.
“We must take action now, stay positive-minded, stay a faith-based community… and say we’re not going to let this ravaging disease get the best of us,” Howard said.
The best example may be Martin Luther King Jr. himself. Howard reminded viewers of King’s advice during another turbulent time:
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”
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