2017-02-01 / Voice at the Shore

Rabbis Geller & Krauss speak at Martin Luther King Day gathering

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore editor


Rabbi Gordon Geller (right) and Imam Salaam Muhsin Masjidullah, keynote speakers for the NAACP’s annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration in Atlantic City, await their turn to speak, as the St. James AME Church Choir performs in the background. Rabbi Gordon Geller (right) and Imam Salaam Muhsin Masjidullah, keynote speakers for the NAACP’s annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration in Atlantic City, await their turn to speak, as the St. James AME Church Choir performs in the background. Jewish clergy joined with Christian and Muslim colleagues to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Atlantic City NAACP’s 45th annual celebration of Martin Luther King Day on January 16. The celebration resonated with an overwhelming determination to keep the dream of Martin Luther King alive, even as that dream appeared to be under threat from increased racism and bigotry stemming from the recent Presidential election.

The event, which centered around the theme “Civil Rights and Social Justice under a Trump Presidency,” began with a march through Atlantic City starting at the Dr. Martin Luther King School Complex, followed by inspirational speeches from distinguished clergy members at the St. James AME Church. In addition to discussing Dr. King’s legacy, clergy also spoke of President Obama’s legacy and how to most effectively respond to the current social and political climate.

Rabbi Gordon Geller of Shirat Hayam was one of three keynote speakers for the event, which was organized by Kaleem Shabazz, an Atlantic City community leader who is also president of the city’s NAACP branch. Rabbi Aaron Krauss of Beth El also participated, offering a blessing and his personal remembrance of taking part in a civil rights march where he was “privileged to hear Martin Luther King speak.”

Following the march, and accompanied by spirited singing by the St. James AME Choir, roughly 350 people, most of them African American, streamed into the sanctuary of the New York Avenue church to hear the speakers. A handful of Jewish community members also attended, including Doug Stanger, vice chair of the Anti-Defamation League’s Philadelphia region, and local resident and Holocaust survivor Don Bergman, who came with his friend Steve Marcus, a Stockton University professor.

“Kaleem Shabazz called me and told me about this event,” said Marcus. “It seemed like a great thing to do on Martin Luther King Day. The only better place to be would be in Atlanta, near King’s grave.”

After praising Martin Luther King as “the greatest leader of the 20th century,” the first keynote speaker, Reverend Dennis Blackwell, posed a question that King also might have asked in the face of Donald Trump’s election and the renewed racism accompanying it: “How should we, as a Black Church, respond?”

Blackwell, an Atlantic City native and spiritual leader for the Asbury United Methodist Church in Woodlynne, NJ, insisted churches needed to educate congregants so that everyone takes part in the political process.

“The political process doesn’t begin and end on Election Day,” he stressed. “It affects us and shapes our lives and destinies every day.”

He noted that 80 members of the NJ State Assembly will soon be up for re-election, including eight members from Atlantic County, and that black churches must encourage congregants to vote for people who will represent their best interests.

African-American churches must also “embrace entrepreneurship as a ministry practice,” said Blackwell. “Entrepreneurship is about taking care of ourselves,” he explained. “We still own less than one percent of the fast food franchises that our church members patronize. Consequently, our congregants clean the chicken, make the food, but don’t manage the money. They’re in the back working for others. We have to stop asking others to do for us what we are smart enough to do for ourselves.”

Also important for surviving “in the age of Trump,” said Blackwell, was acknowledging the supremacy of God. “Slavery, Jim Crow laws, the fight for civil rights—we survived all of these and God was on our side. We have been here before, and God is on our side.”

Shabazz described Rabbi Geller, who spoke next, as “a voice for the voiceless” who had been involved in civil rights for most of his life. Quoting King, Geller decried the fact that 50 years after the civil rights leader’s death, people are still “‘judged by the color of their skin, rather than the content of their character.’ We need to renew our commitment to King’s dream.” Geller described that dream as the fulfillment of Lincoln’s vision of ensuring that all Americans, regardless of their skin color, enjoyed the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. King recognized that America had “defaulted on that promissory note,” he said.

While many Americans hoped that Obama’s presidency represented an end to racism, Geller said it is now clear that Obama’s election “was a milestone on a long journey” that has yet to be completed. “Much more work is ahead of us that won’t be easy or comfortable.”

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian voiced similar sentiments regarding Obama’s presidency. “We were happy eight years ago,” when Obama was elected, he said. “We thought we weren’t going to have to worry about civil rights again, so we went to sleep—shame on us!” Now, said Guardian, “It’s action that we need: peaceful, nonviolent action. Don’t just do the talk, walk the walk, like Dr. King did.”

The current social and political climate demands that African Americans join together with others concerned with preserving human rights to take part in “the human liberation movement,” said final keynote speaker Imam Salaam Muhsin Masjidullah, who is African American. The Imam, who is associated with the Center for Human Excellence in Philadelphia, described that movement as the effort to achieve the scriptural phrase “thy kingdom come.”

“We must be at the front of the human liberation movement,” said the Imam, who added, “It’s always been the minority that moves the majority.”

“You must search deep down in your heart to find the wisdom to lead the human liberation movement,” he told attendees. Unlike the Black Power Movement, the human liberation movement involves good people of all colors and creeds standing together and acting as “God’s army.” He pointed out that while black people have been “treated lower than dogs, rats and cats” by white oppressors, there are also righteous white people, and that African American freedom fighters such as Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman “wouldn’t have accomplished what they did without the help of white people.”

Shabazz advocated the need for unity as well, stressing that the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) is dedicated to ensuring equal rights for all people and eliminating race-based discrimination. Notably, just prior to the inauguration, the NAACP released a joint statement with the Anti-Defamation League, which has a similar mission, on the need to oppose bigotry and defend civil rights for all Americans.

Shabazz also said that this year’s Martin Luther King Day celebration speakers included people of many religions and races in order to represent “a unified voice for social justice.” 

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