Is Martin Luther King Day still relevant? Does it have the same meaning it did 20 years ago when it became a federal holiday?
King’s name is visible across Martin Luther King Drive, the thoroughfare that runs across much of the Greenville and Bergen-Lafayette sections, where most of the city’s African-American population resides.
School No. 11 in Journal Square, a post office on King Drive, and a community development corporation also bear King’s name.
The civil rights leader also appeared twice in Jersey City during his lifetime.
But does the holiday dedicated to him (this past Monday) still have meaning?The street where King is King
Naturally, shopowners at Martin Luther King Hair Braiding at 201 Martin Luther King Drive had a lot to say.
There, Andrea Parson, a Jersey City resident, was making an appointment to get her hair done.
“I think Martin Luther King Day is even more relevant today than it was when it first started,” said Parson. “There is a little more information coming out each year on the man that we didn’t know before.”
Parson said the day will always be relevant to her and to her husband Brian because of how King and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s affected their lives personally, giving them more freedoms.
“A distant relative of my husband was part of the civil disobedience sit-ins during the 1960s and had marched with King,” Parson said. “I have a relative who makes presentations at St. Peter’s College every year on King, and seeing him bring King to life shows the impact the man had on him.”
A few doors down is the headquarters for C-Line Community Outreach Services, a storefront facility that provides counseling to local residents on a variety of issues.
Looking around the office, one sees a picture of Martin Luther King on a desk.
Caroline Nelson, executive director of C-Line, said, “The day is important when I look at the work that myself and the other people do in the community. What King did, more than anything else, was being a humble servant to the people who also moved them to serve their community. Some may lose sight of the day and think of it as a just a day off, but I would think it is very hard to be unaware in Jersey City.”
Her colleague Keith Inniss concurred.
“There is a sizable African-American population in the city, in particular an older group who remembered King and would not let the day become irrelevant,” said Inniss.
A visitor to C-Line wanted to remain unnamed but shared the relevance of Martin Luther King Day in his life.
“To be honest, growing up, the day never really resonated with me,” he said. “But as I grow older, especially working in the community and seeing what’s happening to our youth in this city, I’ve become appreciative of Martin Luther King Day. King died for a cause, these kids out here shooting and killing each other are dying for nothing.” A day on, not a day off
Ward F City Councilwoman Viola Richardson grew up in South Carolina at the height of the civil rights movement. Last Sunday, she and other members of the community conducted a tribute to Martin Luther King at his monument on King Drive.
Richardson believes the day has become an excuse for many just to “idolize rather than mobilize.”
“Too many people think of Martin as a god, and he definitely didn’t think of himself that way,” said Richardson. “People want to sit and idolize the man, but he told people they had to mobilize and give back to their community. In other words, don’t just go to events on King Day just to pay tribute – be active and get involved.”
City Councilwoman at-Large Willie Flood said the day will be relevant for her as it reminded of growing up in Alabama and participating in protests during her late teens and early 20s before moving to Jersey City in 1962.
Hudson County Freeholder Jeffrey Dublin was born in 1969, the year after King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. For Dublin, the day is important, especially as the father of two young boys.
“Every Martin Luther King Day, I make it my business to use the day to take my sons to events so they can learn more on King,” said Dublin. “My parents passed their love and appreciation for King to me, and if it wasn’t for King, I wouldn’t be a freeholder today or serving my community.” The day can be an education
For St. Peter’s College political science professor Dr. Anna Brown and New Jersey City University Africana Studies Professor Dr. Antoinette Ellis Williams, King Day has relevance that goes beyond the classroom.
Brown is one of the organizers of a Martin Luther King tribute at the college every September to remember King’s appearance at the college in 1965, when he received an honorary degree.
“I think Dr. King certainly does tend to make people feel safe. But as we take a day off and consider the significance of King, we should think about him as we are about to go out to shop as King spoke out against rampant consumerism,” said Brown.
Brown also offered her take on how King would react to this day in his honor.
“I don’t think he would care about a day. I think he would have turned around and want to make it a day of civil resistance or peace work.”
Williams sees the day as addressing larger issues, beyond just remembering a great man.
“The day should prompt people to a recommitment to their communities, a lifestyle change,” said Williams. “People only see a man making great speeches, but this day should be about following in his footsteps.”