SOMERVILLE, NJ – Today’s federal holiday commemorating the non-violent legacy of civil rights activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King continues to be tainted by the maddening frequency of gun violence, senseless deaths and clashes between police and aggrieved crowds almost 50 years after King’s assassination in Memphis, Tenn.
Ever hopeful, Pastor Maurice Daniels of St. Thomas AME Zion Church, Somerville’s third oldest congregation, believes King’s words and deeds are still relevant, but that people easily ignore his life’s work.
Were they to listen, and follow his example, there would be less violence, more understanding, more compassion, and less racial bias, according to Daniels.
King was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs.
He led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, serving as its first president. With the SCLC, King led an unsuccessful 1962 struggle against segregation in Albany, Ga. and helped organize the 1963 nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Alabama.
King also helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. There, he established his reputation as one of the greatest orators in American history.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established as a holiday in numerous cities and states beginning in 1971, and as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986.
Then, as now, the names of cities have become synonymous with violent protests and clashes between police and angry crowds – Selma, Alabama and Montgomery, Alabama have been joined by Baltimore, Maryland and Ferguson, Missouri.
“When you think of the legacy of Martin Luther King, you think of a term we often use - cookie cutter; he provided the mold, the framework as to how to fight for justice and do it without violence,” Daniels said.
“He could have retaliated with violence but he retaliated with love, what he was doing was implementing the model of Christ,” he added.
“He spoke to those marginalized and oppressed so that they felt like somebody and that gave them hope; I think that is what society is missing today – his voice.”
More than anything, the pastor admires King for standing for what he believed in.
“I’m not going to talk about it, I’m going to do it,” Daniels said.
“If Manville has a water problem, I am willing to go help them; if there is something wrong in Somerville, same thing. I am willing to go pray, make myself available, that’s how you do it,” Daniels said.
“Actions speak louder than words.”
St. Thomas AME Zion Church, the “Beacon on the Hill,” is located at 75 Paul Robeson Blvd. in Somerville.