J. Emerson McGowan remembers the first time he encountered racial segregation. The African-American New Jersey native was on a Greyhound bus in 1965 en route to Norfolk, Va. from Philadelphia when he woke from a nap and found that the bus had stopped at a rest area.
“I remember getting off and walking towards the restaurant to get a drink or use the bathroom,” Emerson said, “and there was the sign: Whites only.”
Aside from what he saw on the news and read in the papers, McGowan had, until that point, remained relatively removed from the racial war raging throughout the country. Three years later, when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., McGowan felt that a tangible reality remained in the empty space left by King.
“I think I knew it wasn’t over,” he said. “We just had to keep on fighting.”
And so the working actor, who now lives in Camden, does his part every January by traveling to Union City to do a dramatic reading of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech before a crowd of students, city officials, and residents.
He has continued the tradition for around a decade (“I’ve lost count”), and does his best to make sure his performance never gets rusty, nor set in stone.
“I learned [from Dr. King] that if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for almost anything.” - Stanley Timms
Due to the fame of the speech and its author, McGowan attempts to bring an energy to his performance that is different, but not necessarily better, than watching King’s original version on YouTube.
“I try to make it sound fresh,” he said. “People might lose focus if it sounds exactly like what they’ve heard before. But if you do it differently, maybe people hear a certain part of it they may never have noticed before.”
But McGowan need not have worried. In the Union City courtroom last Friday, the focus was there, as was the freshness.
Honoring a community activist
The city’s annual ceremony, organized by Commissioner of Public Affairs Lucio Hernandez and presented by Mayor Brian Stack, this year included honoring longtime Union City resident Stanley Timms, a prominent member of Hudson County’s African-American community and a tenants’ right advocate.
In an address presenting him with a commendation from the city, Stack called Timms “a longtime friend to both myself and the people of Union City.”
Timms, who moved to Union City from the Bronx 19 years ago, said that he had begun working on tenants’ rights issues after helping to organize bus trips to protests being held as part of Dr. King’s Poor People's Campaign, which gathered momentum after the civil rights leader’s assassination.
“I remember hearing the news [of the assassination] and not believing it, but then I went home and saw it on the news,” he said after the ceremony. “The next day I went into work and we all had a moment of silence.”
But after that, Timms continued his work in tenant advocacy throughout the Bronx, and then in Union City. He said he first met the mayor when the much younger Stack came knocking on his door and told Timms he was paying too much rent. From then on, Timms carried the fight across the Hudson, and over the years “made a lot of headaches for landlords.”
“I dedicated myself to some of the work that Dr. King had been a part of,” he said. “I learned that if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for almost anything.”
Contributions from the arts
Ben “Broken English” Figueroa, Union City’s poet laureate, and his frequent collaborator Thomas VanCaott put an edgy and artistic spin on the ceremony by reading a piece of spoken word poetry called “I Have a Dream,” inspired by King’s speech.
“No color lines / no colorblind / the world open eyed / viewing the full spectrum of our beings,” the poem read. “Seeing far beyond / any pond, river, stream / or ocean that separates.”
Figueroa and VanCaott wrote the piece five years ago when they were frequently performing at a poetry evening called SlamChops, which was held at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City and aimed at middle-schoolers.
“A lot of those kids were too young, we thought, to be able to really grasp some of the things that Dr. King fought against,” VanCoatt said. “We tried to recreate his message.”
“We wanted to modernize the speech to make it relatable,” said Figueroa.
The ceremony also included performances by the Union City High School Singers, who sang “Home,” and the school’s jazz quartet. The quartet, made up of Gabriel Ruiz, Caesar Arango, Ronald Hussey, and Joshua Vega, played “Body and Soul,” by John Green and “Darn That Dream,” by Jimmy Van Heusen.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org