The life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement he came to symbolize are perhaps best remembered in the words of Monmouth County citizens who — through protests, marches, sit-ins and in their everyday lives — answered King’s call to make equal rights a reality for every American.
"When bad men plot, good men must plan. When bad men bomb and burn, good men must build and bind. When bad men shout words of hatred, good men must unite and proclaim the glories of love. When bad men seek to preserve a deadening status quo, good men must unite to bring about the birth of justice."
— The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
in a speech on Oct. 6, 1966,
at Monmouth College
in West Long Branch
Dr. Gilbert Fell
They made small talk during the car ride from Red Bank Airport to Monmouth College in West Long Branch.
"I was enlisted to pick Dr. King up at Red Bank Airport," recounted Dr. Gilbert Fell. "I had never met him before, but I was active in the civil rights movement in the county, and I followed him with great interest. The country was torn apart, you know, and locally, what was true nationally was true in the microcosm as well."
King had accepted an invitation to deliver the inaugural speech in the college’s Student Union Lecture Series on Oct. 6, 1966, and Fell, retired professor of psychology, said the invitation was not popular in some quarters.
"The college depended on the largesse of the Board of Freeholders who were largely Republican, and they weren’t happy that he got invited," Fell confided. "So his coming was controversial, so controversial, in fact, that it was rumored that William Van Note, the president of the college, was under pressure not to introduce Dr. King before his speech," he said.
"I went and talked with Dr. Van Note and told him I didn’t see how our college could just ignore the man who was a Nobel Prize winner that fall," added Fell, an Atlantic Highlands resident. "To his credit, Van Note gave a fine introduction to Dr. King."
Fell and two colleagues met the small plane King arrived on and surmised that King’s reticent traveling companion was probably his bodyguard.
"They wanted me along because I’m an ordained minister in the Methodist Church and they thought it would make him more comfortable," Fell explained. "We talked about the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and his own background in the southern Baptist Church."
"We had a lot of common interests," Fell continued. "I told him I had followed his career, and he told me he’d only accidentally gotten picked to be a leader. He was the newest minister in the ministerium and, he confessed with a smile, happened to be the youngest, so they gave him the position to try to straighten out the bus segregation situation that had come to prominence with Rosa Parks.
"He impressed me right away as a man who was thoughtful, measured. I didn’t get a sense that I was talking to a fanatic, and he didn’t take himself all that seriously.
"He had a sense of humor," Fell noted. "He was wearing a suit, and he told me he wasn’t wearing his ‘go to jail clothes,’ that was a denim jacket and jeans."
The audience in the Alumni Memorial Gymnasium (now the Boylan Gymnasium) was mostly students and faculty, and included some hecklers.
"He was well received except when he was introduced, some of the more vigorous right wingers booed him, but they were drowned out by the applause," Fell said.
Sentiments ran high because shortly before the speech, King had come out against the Vietnam War, he said.
"The atmosphere in the gymnasium became tense and moved toward celebratory because he could really preach," Fell recalled. "He gave a powerful speech. It began quietly and built up to a crescendo. People were moved. Even those who had come in anger left with a sense of profound respect for the man. Even if you didn’t agree with his position, he had this charisma great leaders always have.
"Of course, his speech was not fundamentally political," Fell noted. "It was about the same thing that brought about the Civil War in this country, a profound sense of the value we have. He spoke about that, about the equality of all men, that we are all God’s children and the imperative of integration.
"I was impressed by him. He had dark, penetrating eyes, and he looked right at you as he spoke. It was as if you were looking into truth itself. He was a genuinely great man. Somehow or other, it seems as though the times command them, and they appear."
hen I got there, there were buses by the thousands and people of all colors who believed the same way we believed," said Thomas E. Daniels of the March on Washington. "I felt proud to be an American and to be able to go to the seat of government to express my feelings and to listen to others who were also fighting for our freedom," said Daniels, who was among the throng of more than 200,000 civil rights marchers who converged on the nation’s capital on Aug. 28, 1963.
"It was kind of festive, and the weather was good," the Ocean resident said of the atmosphere at the event. Daniels, a former laboratory director at Fort Monmouth and a retired Pentagon official, said there was a large police presence at the march, which remained peaceful.
"All the folks there were interested in peace, not violence. You felt you were part of history in the making, that you had gone to the seat of government and were able to express how you felt and you were hoping that government officials — members of Congress and the president — would hear what you had to say and would take steps to make sure that your freedoms were guaranteed."
"People in the civil rights movement were only asking the country to make good on its promise of freedom for everybody," he continued. "Unfortunately there were people who didn’t think that black people were on a par with anybody else."
According to Daniels, the march began near the Capitol building and moved toward the Lincoln Memorial, where he stood within range of the speakers.
"You had wall-to-wall people. They were marching down the mall, down Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues, and came to the memorial. It was close to noon when Dr. King spoke."
Like the other marchers, Daniels was buoyed by the spirit of the day and anticipation of what would be King’s galvanizing "I Have a Dream" call to action.
"We were gearing up to it, listening to speakers, clapping, holding up signs," he said. "He was the primary speaker and all the others were building up to that.
"When King got up there, a hush came over that entire mass of people because everybody was straining to hear every word he had to say," Daniels recalled. "He was a very powerful speaker, and he was interrupted lots by applause.
"The speech just touched you. He expressed what was in my heart. You had somebody speaking of the way you felt. You were transcended during the time he spoke and you hoped that the world and America could be the way he depicted it in the dream."
"Dr. King’s major accomplishment was making the nation aware that everything wasn’t right in America. He helped mobilize people, not just black people, but poor white people, to get in the fight for the American dream," Daniels said. "He made the country aware that it had a long way to go in making the dream a reality for most of its citizens."
Mary Gilmore couldn’t understand why the black students who went to the Long Branch schools her children attended never seemed to carry textbooks home from school.
As a military wife whose husband was stationed at Fort Monmouth, Gilmore moved to Long Branch with her family in 1967 and quickly noticed the telltale signs of segregated schools.
"What bothered me was that I noticed that black children were walking to school in the rain, sleet and snow, and I couldn’t understand why I saw none of them coming back home with books. I thought, ‘What’s wrong?’
"It was because we had segregated schools," she surmised. "So I got elected to the school board, and I got a taste of what it was like to be at a meeting where there were only two parents in the audience. Apathy and acceptance had spread."
According to Gilmore, who is a member of the state’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Commission and is the county’s fair housing officer, there was active community resistance to desegregation.
Responding to a state mandate, the board formed a desegregation committee in 1983 and drafted a plan to desegregate the school system that used busing, magnet schools and transfers of personnel.
"It was hard for some parents to accept," Gilmore acknowledged. "But the desegregation plan was successful. We now have an integrated school system, and we don’t go to the table now with black/white issues. It’s providing services to students and making sure every student has equity in education."
Ermon K. Jones
After two years of service in the U.S. Army, Ermon K. Jones was looking to buy into one of the new housing developments under construction in the Gables section of his hometown. Jones was living in an apartment with his family, and under the G.I. Bill, veterans could buy homes with 10 percent down and pay 4.5 percent interest
"I lived in Neptune Township all my life. The only time I left was to go into the service and to college," said Jones. "In 1959, homes were being built in Neptune. You went and selected the land and a model home."
But Jones, who was president of the Asbury Park/Neptune chapter of the NAACP during the 1960s, met with resistance.
"First you had to get an application, and I could not secure one," he recalled. "They told me they were not available. Then I was told I would have to be earning a certain amount."
When he returned with his minister and asked for an application, the salesperson for the development told Jones he couldn’t give him one.
"I asked why, and the salesperson said it was because I was a Negro," Jones explained.
"After that I stopped going and filed a complaint."
The developer built 140 homes and left one lot vacant while Jones’ ground-breaking housing discrimination case proceeded through the lower courts, the appellate courts and finally to the state Supreme Court, which ordered the builder to build the home.
"The state ordered the developer to build my home," he recounted. "It broke down barriers.
We moved in six months later, in May 1963," said Jones, who admitted to receiving crank calls from unhappy neighbors.
"We were the only black family in all the developments in Neptune, and some neighbors signed petitions to keep my family out," Jones said. "I wanted to be treated as any other person seeking home ownership. No other person seeking a home in America would have to go through that."
Shortly after he moved into his home, the March on Washington would take place and Jones left for the nation’s capital. "I had to go," he said.
In 1969, Jones brought suit against the Neptune school system for de facto segregation, an action which led to the schools’ desegregation.
"That was another fight and one that affected me personally," said Jones, who applied for a position as a student teacher at Neptune High School after earning a master’s degree and was turned down.
"The superintendent said, ‘We don’t have Negroes teaching in our high school,’ " he said. "There had never been a black teacher in our high school."
Instead, Jones went to work at Fort Monmouth as an engineer and spent 32 years in government service, the 15 years prior to his retirement as chief of the Equal Employment Opportunity Office there.
"In that post I was able to bring some affirmative action to blacks," he said. "I handled complaints of discrimination."
Despite his position, Jones was still a target of discrimination, he said.
"I was at home one evening, and I went outside," he said. "A cross had been placed on my lawn with the words "Stay Out" painted in red on it. I called the police."
The students locked arms and sang freedom hymns and Negro spirituals. They chanted "We shall overcome" and "We shall not be moved." And then the police came.
"We were arrested at the 1964 World’s Fair because we sat and blocked the entrance to the New York City Pavilion to symbolize the way African-Americans were being blocked from rights and privileges," explained Frances Trotman, associate professor at Monmouth University.
The group of students from City College in New York didn’t resist when police arrived.
"We just went limp, and they had to carry us into vehicles. I was arrested, and I remember the policeman who held onto my ankles (another had me by the shoulders) was almost in tears. He said, ‘This is the part when I don’t like my job.’
A picture of the arrest of the woman who would become the first female African-American to be licensed as a psychologist in New Jersey made The New York Times.
Along with the others, Trotman was taken to the Queens County Detention Center where they were arraigned.
"I was 20 years old, and it was horrible. These women were mostly middle class, and a lot of them had no idea what jail was like. They were really shocked that the consequences were so dire. One young woman had her arm broken by a policeman because she was resisting.
"We were strip searched, deloused in the shower, and put into the same cell."
The college students remained in jail for several days, said Trotman, whose fiancé eventually located her and posted bail.
Trotman, who is director of the university’s graduate program in psychological counseling, had defied the wishes of her family to participate in the demonstration.
"My family was totally opposed to this," said the Oceanport resident. "I was the first one in the family to go to college. They wanted me to make it out of Harlem. They didn’t want their child to be arrested. That meant you were a criminal. They were Negroes; they grew up thinking if you oppose the system, you were going to be crushed. They were frightened for me."
Trotman appeared in court with James Farmer, president of the Congress of Racial Equality, who’d also been arrested, and she was coached by NAACP attorneys .
"They were trying to get us off, and they put me up first because I’m light skinned and articulate," she recounted. "They told me to dress very well, so I bought a red, white and blue dress. The charges were resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, and the judge gave me a suspended sentence largely because I looked demure."
Collectively, all the civil rights actions brought about change, she noted.
"All the demonstrations and bus rides were cumulative. It made a difference. How else," she asked, "are minorities heard in a democracy?"
His friends showed up in the nick of time and saved Franklyn Rother from being attacked by students at his Catholic high school who didn’t approve of his class project about racial segregation in housing in 1963 St. Louis.
"I was threatened, and the only thing that saved me was that I was a track star and could outrun them. Also one of the black students on the track team lived in my neighborhood and heard the threats. He brought his friends to the park," recounted Rother, whose class project on segregated housing practices in St. Louis had enraged classmates of all ethnicities.
"I was surprised because I thought Catholics wouldn’t be like that," said Rother, who lost some friends and wasn’t re-elected class president as a result of the incident.
While still in high school, Rother joined the Junior Catholic Interracial Council and continued his civil rights involvement.
"St. Louis was a Jim Crowe practice city, so buses were segregated, lunch counters were segregated," he explained. "We went around in a mixed group and tested open housing and sat in at lunch counters to see whether or not we would get served.
"At major department stores we generally got looks and negative comments," Rother continued, "but when we went to other parts of the city, we got threats and had to leave. One sheriff in a small town told us he couldn’t stop what was going to happen if we didn’t leave."
Rother wrote to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. about his experiences at the sit-ins, and King responded in a letter dated June 22, 1964.
"Imagine a 17-year-old getting a letter back from King. I still have a copy," said Rother, who is a professor of psychology and chair of the division of social sciences at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft.
Rother was active in open housing efforts in Louisville, Ky., in 1966-67.
When King passed through Louisville, stopping to lead a march from a black church to a white neighborhood in 1967, Rother was among the marchers who were pelted by 2,000 bottle- and stone-throwing whites.
"I remember clearly how much he was at the front of the line," he recalled.
When King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Rother left for the funeral in Atlanta. The only white person in a contingent of 300 people that traveled to the funeral by bus, Rother said the trip had some tense moments.
"We heard there were threats the Ku Klux Klan would meet the buses in Alabama. We had to go through Alabama before we reached Georgia," he explained.
"When we went through Alabama, I remember it being absolutely silent," recounted the Millstone resident. "There were cheers when we crossed the border into Georgia."
On the day of King’s funeral, buses remained on the periphery of Atlanta and mourners walked to the campus of Morehouse College where King’s body lay in state, he said.
"Atlanta was basically shut down. All along the way as we were walking, very famous people were directing traffic."
Most of the presidential candidates attended the service and Robert F. Kennedy came in last, Rother said.
"The crowd had been very solemn until then, and as he came in, the crowd began to cheer, and they tried to suppress it because it was inappropriate and the crowd settled back quickly," he noted.
More than 60,000 mourners listened over loudspeakers set up outside Ebenezer Baptist Church where King had begun his ministry and where, on April 9, his funeral service was held. Thousands joined in the funeral procession afterward, following a mule-driven farm cart that carried King’s casket.
"The atmosphere was very, very solemn. People were in shock. They were very in touch with why they went there. It was a remarkable experience," Rother said.
"He had said, ‘You can kill the dreamer, but not the dream.’ Then all of us were responsible for carrying the dream forward. There was a sense of that."