ATLANTIC CITY — The history of the struggle for civil rights equality and the idea of service to a cause greater than one’s self will be themes at events across South Jersey on Monday celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
“We are sick and tired of being sick and tired,” said Fannie Lou Hamer in her 1964 address to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.
Yolanda Melville will echo Hamer’s words during her keynote speech at the Atlantic City chapter of the NAACP’s Martin Luther King Day ceremony Monday.
Melville, 33, a local attorney with Cooper Levenson and the legal redress chair for the chapter, focuses her speech on themes of service and women’s role in the civil rights movement.
“The history in Atlantic City is … it’s rich and abundant. But then you look around and you realize that some of the issues they were fighting for then, they’re still fighting for now,” Melville said, referencing housing discrimination and voter suppression.
Originally from the Bronx section of New York City, Melville’s family moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia, when she was 10. She came to Atlantic City after graduating from Howard Law School in 2012, and worked as a law clerk for Judge Susan Maven. Upon arriving here, one thing struck her.
“I kind of looked around and saw that there was a need for legal advocacy and people of color to serve this community,” Melville said.
Of course, King’s words will also be featured largely at events Monday.
At the Atlantic City Free Library on Saturday, library patrons and elected officials — including Mayor Frank Gilliam and Councilman Kaleem Shabazz — recited some of King’s notable written works, including his “I have a dream” and “I have been to the mountaintop” speeches and his “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”
With the current politically divisive climate in the United States, the sixth-annual “read-in” being held there Saturday feels particularly important this year, said Library Director Robert Rynkiewicz.
“So when we do a program like this, it really is an opportunity for all of us to come together,” Rynkiewicz said. “It’s a community event where we can speak out and work together. Because we’ve got to do that, right?”
Some tie Atlantic City’s history into their ceremonies.
“Atlantic City has a history in the civil rights movement in America,” said Shabazz, president of Atlantic City’s NAACP chapter. “The NAACP is over 70 years old in Atlantic City, fighting for civil rights, fighting for equality and social justice, and that’s part of the DNA of Atlantic City’s civil rights movement and civil rights activity.”
Like Rynkiewicz, Shabazz felt the national moment underlined the importance of Martin Luther King Day in important ways.
Recent racist comments from officials like Representative Steve King, R-Iowa — and the ensuing silence from President Donald Trump — plays a role in that, he said.
“I think it seeps down, and people see that and they want to be involved in an activity they think has the potential to bring people together,” Shabazz said, “and I think that anytime you bring up the legacy of King, and do some of the things King does, that helps all of humanity and people respond to that.”
Stockton’s 15th annual Day of Service features more than 800 students and community partners doing just that, university spokesperson Diane D’Amico said.
An organizer for the event, Veronica Rowland, 22, graduated from Stockton last May and started a year of service there with AmeriCorps in October.
The large amount of events and partners for the day of service reflect the school “trying to connect with the majority of the community that Stockton reaches and that prospective students are from,” Rowland said.
She thinks large-scale service events such as Stockton’s provide an opening for people to get involved more generally.
“I think that days of service are good ways for people who are maybe not as involved in service to start getting involved and start figuring out what kind of service they’re interested in,” Rowland said, “and what they think gives back the most in relation to them.”
Ocean City is encouraging residents to give back to their community by participating in a citywide cleanup Monday morning before a program centered on the life and words of King.
“It really is a reminder to kids and families and seniors to take time and give back because you learn a lot more about yourself and your community when you’re taking time to give,” said Mike Hartman, Special Events Coordinator for Ocean City.
At the event, Sally Onesty, a Ocean City resident and owner of A Bella Salon and Spa, will be honored with the Martin Luther King Award for her volunteer work as an advocate for addicted individuals.
It is work she has done since her son, Tyler, died of an overdose in March 2017.
Onesty acts as a liaison, connecting addicted individuals with recovery homes and addiction services, and says the doors are always open at her salon. They keep pamphlets there for those who need information, and collect food for recovery and sober living homes.
“I don’t get paid. I don’t work for treatment centers. None of that,” Onesty said. “I just try to get help — mostly free help — that the families and the active user could use if they’re ready, and willing, and able to start recovery.”