By Paul Aronsohn
Imagine that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is still alive.
Imagine, for a moment, that he is still here on Earth … living, preaching, advocating and leading. Imagine that he was here to celebrate his 84th birthday before heading down to Washington to witness the second inauguration of the first African-American president.
And imagine that he has followed the path taken by many prominent leaders — such as Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and Richard Nixon — and decided to spend his later years living right here in New Jersey.
Something tells me King would have a lot to say. From civil rights to economic justice to war, he would likely have strong views on the full range of contemporary topics. Voter disenfranchisement. Disability rights. Fiscal cliffs. Income inequality. Health care reform. Sandy. Newtown. Afghanistan. Terrorism.
But King would likely spend much of his time talking about his new home state, because the honorary St. Peter’s College doctor of law had a special affinity for New Jersey.
As such, he would tell friends that he moved to the Garden State because of its rich, diverse culture … its tradition of political moderation and social progressivism … and, of course, its wonderful shoreline. (King liked his summers.) Having resettled his family in Bergen County, he would be known for boasting of his adopted suburban community and for challenging his New York friends with his passionate defense of all things New Jersey.
But lately, he would focus his thoughts on the changes that have taken place the past few years — changes that have threatened that culture, undermined that moderation and progress and devastated that shoreline.
He would welcome the demographic shifts that have occurred over the years, leading to an even more ethnically and racially diverse population. But he would criticize decisions that have left our state Supreme Court without an African-American jurist, our congressional delegation without a woman, and thousands of people with developmental disabilities without a place to call home. And he would express deep frustration and disappointment that his beloved New Jersey has failed to do the right thing regarding one of the most significant civil rights issues of the day: marriage equality.
He would speak of the state’s rampant unemployment — one of the worst in the country, even before the recent hurricane put many out of business. He would talk about the increasing tax burden that is crushing middle-class families throughout the state … a tax burden caused by a 20 percent increase in property taxes, reductions in the earned income tax credit for the working poor and cuts in the Homestead Tax Rebate for seniors and people with disabilities.
He would condemn the toxic political environment in Trenton. He would welcome the occasional bipartisanship, but challenge our elected leaders to set a more positive, more productive tone. In that spirit, he would urge the governor to refrain from his notorious public outbursts, name-calling and derogatory language. And while he would acknowledge the governor’s national ambitions, he would ask him to come back to the political center on issues ranging from global warming to reproductive health.
He would talk endlessly about the need to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to give immediate aid to our brothers and sisters in nearby Little Ferry and Moonachie, whose towns and lives have been left in great disrepair. And he would question the motives and judgment of those congressional members who have opposed such assistance, begging them to reconsider their position in the name of all that is good and decent.
He would note with disbelief that the governor failed to make even a single reference to the Newtown massacre in his recent state of the state address, suggesting it was a missed opportunity to address the culture of violence that victimizes too many of our children.
Finally, King would emphasize the importance of this year’s gubernatorial election. He would implore his fellow New Jerseyans to take this election and their vote very seriously. He would note that the best way to right the wrongs of the past few years — the social stagnation, the economic injustice and the political polarization — is through the ballot box. As he famously explained, “Voting is the foundation stone for political action.”
Taken together, if King were alive and living in our great Garden State, he would be pleased, but concerned — pleased with the progress made over the years, concerned with recent decisions seemingly taking us in the wrong direction. He would challenge the collective conscience and collective wisdom of New Jersey’s political class to do better, to be better. He would remind us all of our common humanity.
And one last thing: If King were alive, something tells me that the avid basketball fan would express his profound disappointment with the Nets’ move to Brooklyn, noting that the Teaneck-born team should have stayed in its rightful home in Newark. After all, King had developed an increasingly close relationship with the Brick City, which had become a focus of his Poor People’s Campaign and that today bears many tributes to the great civil rights leader.
Perhaps presciently, during his last visit to Newark on March 27, 1968 — just a week before his assassination — King reportedly noted to a couple of local journalists, “I’ll be coming back to New Jersey because there is a lot to be done.”
Paul Aronsohn is the mayor of Ridgewood.