NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ – The New Providence Diversity Committee and Berkeley Heights Diversity Council and the New Providence Presbyterian Church held a “MLK Celebration Jam” at the Annex on Monday, Jan. 15.
The family-friendly event drew an enthusiastic crowd of residents of both communities – adults and children – who enjoyed music, poetry readings, and reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. Jean Marquis, a Berkeley Heights Resident was asked to speak about what it was like growing up in Brooklyn prior to the Civil Rights movement, in the late 1950s and ‘60s. Her parents were immigrants and “struggled as all immigrants did to adjust to the demands of a new country,” she said. They were faced with limited opportunities for employment and “were aware of the rules and limitation of their situation and how black people, even in New York, were discriminated against,” she said.
Back then, black people, then called “colored,” lived in “beautiful brownstones in Bedford Stuyvesant, worked hard, were very strict with their children, especially with regard to schooling, dress, proper English because our success or failures were not only about us, but a reflection on the whole community,” she said.
There was no “blatant discrimination or physical brutality,” and even segregation was subtle, unlike the south, but there were signs that even a child could pick up that being “colored” meant you were treated differently, Marquis said.
She attended Brooklyn College at night, while working during the day, and graduated with a degree in philosophy. Later she went on to earn a masters and a doctorate and, in 1972, joined the Brooklyn College faculty, where she taught English for 40 years. While there she joined in student protests and, when the New York State Senate passed and funded a law establishing the SEEK Program (Seek Education Elevation and Knowledge), and joined the SEEK program faculty. She said under that law “all students were eligible to attend Brooklyn College, if they were disadvantaged financially and educationally and, to meet their needs, would receive the necessary remediation in English and Math.” It also required the department to hire qualified faculty members who were “sensitive to the needs of these students.”
Life was not easy for the SEEK department, but because it “embraced the teachings of Dr. King and, because of his influence,” the state senate continue to approve it, giving thousands of students “opportunities to become everything they were able to become,” she said. In time, students from countries all around the world enrolled and the Brooklyn College SEEK program became the most successful SEEK program in the City University system.
Despite its flaws, the program “spoke directly to one of the statements that Dr. King delivered on the night before he was murdered, ‘Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And, let us move on in those powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it out to be. We have the opportunity to make America a better nation,’” she said.
Her last thought on Dr. King was that, “If Dr. King were here he would be on the front line fighting for the rights guaranteed to all in the constitution … And, along with these constitutional rights, the moral obligation this country and its people must take on. The answer to the question, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper is quite simple. Yes, you are.’”
Berkeley Heights resident Stephen Yellin wrote and read a poem for the occasion, based on Dr. King’s words:
Once, in a world where trumpet calls
For freedom crumbled walls,
Walls of oppression, walls of shame,
A man of privilege, of lasting fame
Each time we Stand Up
Against hatred, Line Up
Against injustice, Speak Up
Against despair, we sent forth
A tiny ripple of hope; north
And south, east and west, taking
Apart the walls of hate, forsaking
Today, we see
That old cruelties, ancient hatreds,
The wretched filth of ancient years,
Made newly strong by human fears,
Challenge us all.
This is the call
For us to cast our rock
In the waters; that no clock
Be turned back, that hope
Will grow, not weaken.
And that each ripple become a beacon
That guides us all forward, creating a wave
Of change for our time – a brave
new world of freedom.
Let us – every one of us – cast our rock
And let loose the ripples of hope.
There were other poems read, some thoughts on diversity from New Providence Diversity Committee Chairperson Sunil Abrol, who said it is important to "recognize we are one human race."
Berkeley Heights resident Jimmy Josephs was one of the last speakers, he gave a shout out to Mayor Al Morgan and his wife, Christine, and Abrol for introducing him to "what this town is all about." He urged those at the Jam to remember, "If you don't say anything, if you don't speak up, it's not going to happen ... Because of the big megaphone someone is using today, we need to speak to your neighbors, let them know, 'This is not how some of us live, especially Hatiatian Americans ... This is not what America's about.'"