This year as we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday on Monday, January 17, it’s a good time not only to review his legacy but remember his connection to New Jersey and his visit to Montclair High School.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) visited Montclair High School (MHS) on Sunday, September 11, 1966, to give a retirement speech in honor of Reverend D.C. Rice of Union Baptist Church in Montclair, according to the Montclair Dispatch. Rev. Rice had been a family friend of the King’s. When MLK was young, he met the reverend on a summer trip to visit family in Paterson, NJ. Eventually, Rev. Rice became a mentor to MLK.
When news broke that MLK would be speaking at Rev. Rice’s retirement ceremony, many people, not just congregants, wanted to attend. The reverend’s church didn’t have enough room to hold everybody and Montclair High School was chosen as the alternate venue.
At this time, in the mid-1960s, Americans were divided about the Civil Rights Movement, and the announcement that Dr. King would be speaking in the high school’s gym sparked controversy. It caused a public outcry among some of Montclair’s white residents, angry that the church was using public property for the event. In response, the municipality ordered the church to take back half of the tickets already promised to the congregation.
The outcome was that MLK gave two speeches that day. Dr. King delivered the first to a mainly white audience in Montclair High’s new gymnasium; the topic was inequalities of school segregation. His second was directed to Rev. Rice’s church congregation in the auditorium. Dr. King waited in the high school’s band room between the two speeches. From there, he saw the many civilians lining Park Street and protesting his visit.
Despite this, there were few places outside of large cities where MLK could speak to an integrated audience in 1966, according to Leslie Wilson, professor of history at Montclair State University. “Montclair has always stood out, in the country and New Jersey, as different,” Professor Wilson stated to northjerseynews.com. “There is this very diverse community, and it’s been diverse since the 1920s, which is somewhat unique in American history, especially for a suburb.”
In 2016, on the 50th anniversary of MLK’s visit, the students in the Montclair High School Civics and Government Institute (CGI) unveiled a new bronze plaque, as mentioned in the Montclair Dispatch, to commemorate Dr. King’s visit. It was a replica of a long-lost but ultimately found black and white photo of MLK sitting on a chair in the music room, waiting to give his second speech.
Wondering how to remember and honor Dr. King’s legacy? Focus on civil rights work; highlight nonviolence to promote change; and sign up for public service or volunteer work, as the Constitution Daily mentions.
One final thing to do is sing Stevie Wonder’s rendition of “Happy Birthday,” which he wrote in honor of MLK in 1981, and sang it at a rally on the Mall in Washington to highlight King’s birthday. Stevie Wonder also sang it at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial dedication in 2011.