They braved the chill, wind and rain of a nor’easter as they marched through Newark’s south ward. The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice led the way for the broad coalition of fair housing, civil rights and religious organizations.
Young activists were from Wisconsin, Kansas and Ohio. Their destination was Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church. In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rallied organizers there in his Poor People’s Campaign 8 days before his assassination. “Dr. King’s work needs to continue with us,” said Ryan Haygood, president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. They’re working toward closing the wealth gap in New Jersey. The Institute says the median net worth of the average white family in New Jersey is $271,000, but just $5,900 for black families.
Other work they’re doing is restoring voting rights to those convicted of crimes. It’s an issue that advocates hitch to juvenile justice. “New Jersey has the highest black to white youth incarceration disparity rate in America,” Haygood said. Haygood was on Gov. Phil Murphy’s transition team. He says coalition leaders recently brought up those issues with the governor, and Murphy reminded them that he captured 94 percent of the black vote last year. “But we need that to mean something. When you get 94 percent of the black vote and when black folks are facing some of the starkest racial disparities in America, we need you to have specific plans,” Haygood said. “We’re not anti-anyone. We are for our interests,” said Deborah Smith-Gregory, president of the Newark NAACP. On the eve of the rally, Murphy signed Executive Order 42, creating the Task Force for the Continued Transformation of Youth Justice in New Jersey.
In a statement, the governor acknowledges the state’s “groundbreaking work” to reduce youth incarceration, but says “the black-white youth incarceration gap” is “shameful” and the task force is to “ensure that New Jersey’s juvenile justice system reflects New Jersey values, including safety, dignity and fairness.” Activists reacted to the governor’s executive order at the rally afterward. “How’d that happen? Because the people organized themselves around issues, and we said ‘Yes, Gov. Murphy, you view yourself as a progressive, we’re going to help you be the thing you see yourself as,'” Haygood said. “Today is just the beginning of a transformed youth justice system that doesn’t look at children for the worst thing they’ve ever done, but for the best person they can ever be,” said Rev. Charles Boyer, executive director of Salvation and Social Justice.
The governor says he’s working on closing the wage gap and opening up democracy to ex-offenders. He says he remembers the election results. “The fact that I won with that percentage doesn’t mean that I just slapped my hands together and forgot,” Murphy said on Monday. The coalition says state legislators have a role in reforms, policies and laws as well, to make New Jersey more equitable for all of its citizens. And 17-year-old Quan’ye White issued a warning to the governor. “The children of the 94 percent didn’t vote you in, but we can vote you out,” he said.