Newarkers Remember Dr. King at the Newark Public Libraryís Annual Commemoration
It may be a footnote in the history of his life as a civil rights leader, activist and compelling voice for justice, but it was an important day for Newark when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., spoke to a crowd in South Side High Schoolís auditorium in March 1968.
The Newark Public Library commemorates that visit in a program entitled 40 Years After King, at its annual salute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on Thursday, January 17 at 6 p.m. in Centennial Hall at the Main Library, 5 Washington Street. The event will feature a panel discussion offering very personal thoughts by speakers, including those who met the civil rights leader during his visit to Newark.
"Having people share their thoughts and experiences of Dr. Kingís visit to Newark is another way to ensure that his voice and message live on and are passed to a new generation of leaders and activists," said Wilma J. Grey, the Libraryís director.
The Libraryís program will feature Cornell William Brooks, executive director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice; author, journalist and historian Douglas Eldridge; political consultant and activist Gustav Heningburg; former New Jersey State Assemblyman William Payne; and Winthrop McGriff, a South Side High School alumnus and currently the athletic director of Orange High School.
The panel discussion will be followed by a reception.
Formerly a Martin Luther King Scholar at Boston University, Brooks was taught by the same professor who taught Dr. King in the 1950s while earning his doctoral degree.
Eldridge is currently executive director of the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee, and was a Newark News reporter covering civil rights issues for the newspaper when King visited.
A political consultant and activist and a past head of the Greater Newark Urban Coalition, Heningburg was recruited by both former Newark Mayors Kenneth A. Gibson and Sharpe James to head their transition teams when they won their respective mayoralties.
Assemblyman William D. Payne has represented the 29th legislative district Newark since 1998. He authored the legislation creating the state Amistad Commission, which mandates the teaching of awareness programs in New Jersey public schools concerned with the vestiges of slavery and the contributions of African Americans. He is a public affairs consultant, who has served as president of Essex County Collegeís Board of Trustees since 2003.
Winthrop McGriff is the student credited with inviting Dr. King to speak at South Side High School and had earned the privilege of introducing him on stage at the event. It was thanks to a letter he had written to Dr. King that the civil rights leader decided to travel to Newark.
By all accounts, it was a very long day.
Kingís first stop was at a nursery school, followed by press conferences, a meeting with a family on public assistance and several private meetings, one with poet and radical activist Amiri Baraka, another with attorney Oliver Lofton, a member of the governorís commission investigating the past summerís riots.
He later traveled to Orange and to Jersey City before returning to Newark for meetings at Abyssinian and Mt. Calvary Baptist Churches and then to speak at the high school.
Eldridge, who "tagged along" with King to the different events, remembers that at one point the motorcade escorting Dr. King to Jersey City across the Meadowlands had been stopped by an open drawbridge; "thatís the only opportunity I had to approach him."
"Ernie Johnston, a Star-Ledger reporter, and I left our car and walked to his where we interviewed him briefly," said Eldridge. "He seemed weary; it had already been a long day and it wasnít over."
In the 11-year period between 1957, when he was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and 1968, Dr. King traveled more than six million miles and spoke at more than 2,500 meetings, rallies and conferences. He appeared wherever there was social injustice, protest and action.
At the time of his visit to Newark, the city was in the throes of change. It had been racked by riots the year before, yet had hosted the first National Conference on Black Power that same summer, chaired by activist Dr. Nathan Wright Jr. More than 1,000 delegates representing 42 cities and 197 black organizations attended the three-day conference that espoused the creation of black national holidays, black universities and even a "buy black" effort.
Coming to Newark was consistent with Dr. Kingís commitment to and support of social protest movements. He had organized and led massive protests and voter registration drives in Alabama, a peace march that brought 250,000 people to Washington, D.C., and made countless trips around the country to support boycotts and strikes, including two trips to Memphis, Tennessee, to support striking sanitation workers there. It was during that second visit to the city, where he led a protest march in support of the sanitation workers, that he was assassinated.
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©2008 The Newark Public Library