MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair NAACP has publicly responded to statements made by Montclair NAACP education chair James Harris by suspending him for 6-months, officials announced on Tuesday.
President of the Montclair NAACP Albert Pelham has issued a release saying that though Harris was representing the New Jersey Association of Black Educators, since he brought the NAACP into the conversation, they are expressing that his comments do not reflect the mission of the organization.
Pelham wrote, "Some of Mr. Harris’s overall comments and tone that evening were in clear contradiction of The NAACP’s mission and thus the Montclair Branch condemns them."
Calls for an apology came from Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill, Councilor Sean Spiller and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo.
On Tuesday, DiVincenzo said, “The derogatory remarks made by James Harris during a recent Montclair community meeting are insensitive and inexcusable. I have always said that our strength is our diversity and I continue to believe that even today. When one segment of our community is attacked, it hurts us all. Let’s not fan the flames of hate and allow it to divide us. Instead, let’s show respect for our differences, not accept prejudice and unite our community behind our diversity.”
Harris has since apologized for his remarks made at a December 30th community meeting. Harris is the education chairperson for the Montclair NAACP and also the president of New Jersey Association of Black Educators (NJABE), but during the forum, he stated that he was speaking on behalf of NJABE, not the NAACP.
During the meeting, Harris was rebuked by Rabbi David Greenstein after making remarks about Hasidic Jews. Residents have been at odds on social media since and Mayor Robert Jackson issued a statement to express that a meeting will take place among religious leaders Monday.
In his apology, Harris added, "My personal statement was meant to focus on the impact of gentrification on lower socioeconomic communities in Montclair, NJ. Instead, I used a regional example of Lakewood, NJ real estate and public education funding. Unfortunately I used terms and examples that have been interpreted as anti-Semitic."
Baskerville, who hosted the forum, has issued a statement saying, “I reiterate that the anti-Semitic, bigoted, and hateful comments of a speaker at “My Brothers-Sisters CalmUnity Engagement” were his alone. I feel badly about hurt feelings. I also reiterate the purpose of the meeting was to build bridges between communities and climb higher
together. I am abundantly clear, as are the preeminent global leaders on best practices in building and sustaining the Beloved Community, that the way to do this is not to publicly excoriate and eliminate the ill-informed, but rather, to educate, to liberate, and move to higher ground. I want to make abundantly clear: hate has NO home in Montclair. We must be vigilant identifying and responding to acts of bigotry. I will continue my life’s work bringing people together and working toward a just world and increased opportunities for ALL people.”
Pelham's statement added, "Mr. Harris has a strong 40 year or longer history with the NAACP and has held numerous leadership positions in our great organization. Unfortunately, his comments come at a time in this divided country when hate has overpowered love and compassion. While the purpose and theme of the December 30th meeting was around Unity, his comments have created a firestorm and will only serve to further divide us as a community."
The Montclair NAACP’s full response is below:
As President of the Montclair branch of the NAACP, I would like to publicly respond to the statements made by Mr. James Harris at the December 30th meeting which was hosted by 4th Ward Councilwoman Dr Renee Baskerville.
The mission of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is to secure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights in order to eliminate race-based discrimination and ensure the health and well-being of all persons.
While Mr. Harris clearly stated at the beginning of his address that he was representing the New Jersey Association of Black Educators, he went out of his way to mention and bring the NAACP into the conversation.
Some of Mr. Harris’s overall comments and tone that evening were in clear contradiction of The NAACP’s mission and thus the Montclair Branch condemns them. Yesterday, Mr. Harris made a public apology to the local newspaper and shared copies of it at our Branch Executive Committee meeting last evening. After some open and honest discussion, the executive committee voted on and unanimously approved a recommendation from the floor that Mr. Harris would step away from the Chair of our Education Committee for 6 months. There is much work to done regarding the many issues facing the Montclair Public Schools and the branch does not want this unfortunate issue to be a distraction.
Mr. Harris has a strong 40 year or longer history with the NAACP and has held numerous leadership positions in our great organization. Unfortunately, his comments come at a time in this divided country when hate has overpowered love and compassion. While the purpose and theme of the December 30th meeting was around Unity, his comments have created a firestorm and will only serve to further divide us as a community.
Prayerfully, we can grow from this as people and a community to set an example for the rest of this country.
Montclair Branch NAACP
NOTE: Original article was updated to add a statement from Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo and Baskerville issued on Tuesday.