SUMMIT, NJ - The ongoing conversation about -- and struggle with -- the issue of race in America took to the streets of Downtown Summit as an estimated 400 - 500 people gathered for a 'Black Lives Matter' march through the Hilltop City.
The event was organized by a 20-member 'Black Lives Matter' team, led by Claudia Cohen from the Unitarian Church in Summit and the Reverend Vernon Williams of Fountain Baptist Church, and saw the group begin their journey at Christ Church, on the corner of Tulip Street and Springfield Avenue, and march down Springfield Avenue to the Unitarian Church at 4 Waldron Avenue.
Like the town they marched in, the group was diverse, featuring faces of many colors, people of all ages, and representing a variety of houses of worship. A high majority of those participating wore 'Black Lives Matter' T-Shirts.
Along the route, there were chants of 'Who's Street?... Our Street', 'The People United Will Never Be Defeated', and 'Show Me What Democracy Looks Like... THIS is What Democracy Looks Like'.
While the streets and sidewalks were virtually empty during the event, the group did get a round of applause from diners eating al fresco at Winberie's. Other onlookers took photos on their smartphones, while some simply stood by as the group passed. In sum, the mood was passionate but composed among those marching, with the Summit Police Department closing area streets to enable a safe and smooth path.
Reverend Emilie Boggis of the Unitarian Church, one of the leading voices that brought about the day, said that their congregation's involvement in matters of racial justice is a natural extension of previous socially-conscious initiatives, and a derivative of conversations that began within the Summit Interfaith Council.
"Our voice speaks our values - the inherent worth and dignity of every person. This movement is no different than when we took a stand to end the war in Iraq, or the efforts to assist women in Darfur refugee camps."
As to the question asked by many in the days preceding the event. 'Why hold the event in Summit?', a community with no overt or hot-button race issues, Boggis has a simple and straightforward answer.
"Why not Summit? Summit is unique, it is a diverse community with many groups and 18 houses of worship. There is an opportunity to have a conversation about race."
In April, The Unitarian congregation members voted unanimously to take a public stand to affirm that 'Black Lives Matter' after what the Church has termed "an extensive education and engagement process within the congregation and the surrounding community."
As stated on its website, 'Black Lives Matter' is a chapter-based national and international organization working for the validity of Black life. #BlackLivesMatter was created in 2012 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin.
Unitarian Church members engaged with issues on race and privilege through the Church's Beloved Conversations curriculum, interfaith and multiracial Dialogue Circles in the Summit community, and several book discussions on the issue, including Ta’Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, and Debby Irving’s Waking Up White.
'Black Lives Matter' banners now adorn the facades of both the Unitarian and Fountain Baptist Churches.
Once the group reached the Unitarian Church, they heard myriad speakers, songs, and messages centered on a central theme -- racial justice is inherent human right, and that the journey to that aspiration still had many miles to go. Cohen, Unitarian Church member and organizer of the 'Black Lives Matter' initiative, said the goal was to "write a new chapter of our shared story."
Ellen Boylan, a Summit resident and Unitarian Church member, said, "we are all neighbors, all Americans, one human race."
Susan Hairston, a Fountain Baptist member, described herself as a "fourth, or maybe even fifth generation Summit Hilltopper." Hairston described how Summit is a microcosm of America, with "both pockets of power and privilege and powerlessness and underprivileged." Hairston went on to say that former is "not a bad thing, but that is dependent on how the power is understood, used and experienced."
The Reverend Michael J. Sanders of Fountain Baptist said that, "in the Land of The Free and Home of the Brave, something is missing," and said that the racial divide means many Americans see minorities' "desire to be treated fair as being treated as special."
Unitarian Church Reverend Robin Tanner, currently in Charlotte, NC -- the latest site of racial unrest in the country -- sent an e-mail that Boggis read. In it, she challenged all to "go beyond the banner," and turn their aspirations into action.
Prior to concluding the event, the crowd joined hands and sang We Shall Overcome, hoping the harmony of their voices serves as metaphorical inspiration for the society they all inhabit.