Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The 5th Annual MLK Coffee Drinking Party: Civil Rights and Coffee--Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (What a Party it Was!)

On Sunday, January 19th, 2014, we hosted our 5th annual MLK Coffee-Drinking Party. (MLK, Jr. loved coffee and was a regular coffee-drinker.) Five years seems like a long time, certainly long enough to create a tradition in a community like Montclair, New Jersey. But when you think about long-standing traditions, you should think about coffee. Coffee has been part of the human experience since the 9th century when, according to the legend, an Ethiopian goat-herder “discovered” coffee beans after observing his goats eating them and becoming unusually active. By the 1400’s, coffee beans were being cultivated and roasted on the Arabian Peninsula, and by the 1600’s, regular coffee consumption was part of life in Europe and New York.

Coffee and Civil Rights—Two Old, Cherished Traditions

Now think about Civil Rights. Think beyond the United States for a moment. What are civil rights? Civil rights are secular human rights that guarantee legal, social and economic equality. The quest for these rights is as old as the human experience. There have always been people who found themselves in unfair, unjust situations, who sought to align their outer circumstances with their inborn inner dignity. Coffee drinking/civil rights are very old traditions. Just as, by comparison, drinking coffee in the United States and being able to celebrate the victories of the US Civil Rights Movement (The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which authorized federal action against segregation in public places; the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968) are both relatively new.

For us, and the people at our party, and lots of other people, celebrating MLK Day and the American Civil Rights Movement continues to be an important “tradition”---a cultural touchstone, worth acknowledging---a holiday that particularly resonates in a place like Montclair (for a number of reasons, the photos themselves tell an important part of our story). It also reminds us that there is more work to do here in the United States to further advance socioeconomic and racial equality.

Coffee, Cocoa...and Wine

Now back to the party: Every year, more and more people come. The goal is to always make room for more. This year, about 55 people got together to drink coffee, hot chocolate, tea, wine or seltzer—and eat sweet and savory treats.  People came, they went, it snowed, we had fun and the kids played. Toddlers dressed up in tutus, while tweens danced around with Wii joysticks. Everyone enjoyed the jazz. Once again, there were zucchini cookies (thanks Shannon!) and amazing brownies, really good savory treats, and gluten-free and vegan options as well. Though many of the same people come each year, this year there were new people, which made it more festive and even more interesting.  It was the usual diverse assortment of writers, editors, lawyers, educators, I.T. professionals, fitness enthusiasts, Wall Street executives, business people, volunteers and creatives. Lots of parents, some not parents. Some people born and raised in Montclair, some from other parts of the country, many from NYC (mainly Brooklyn or the UWS), and many Montclairians who came by way of Italy, Ghana, Russia, Israel, Romania, or Hong Kong. And though we went quite late, everyone was out by 11:30. The next morning (which normally would be reserved for spin or yoga classes, or family walks) was a no-holds-barred day for volunteering as part of a newly evolving MLK Day tradition in Montclair called Day ON.

 The party was not political---after all the politics that led to the party had mainly happened before most of us at the party were born. We were there to drink coffee, to honor a tradition and to express our gratitude, which we did by holding up our cups in honor of Dr. King and taking photographs. Thanks to the efforts of eighth grader, Noah Gale, who made the “Thank you, Dr. King!” poster this year, we had lots of visual reminders of Mr. King surrounding us. Most parties here in Montclair tend to be easygoing, light, fun affairs---the hard work around the issue of diversity, inclusion and ‘civil rights’ is done in the classrooms, where our children are taught; in the township council; in editorial offices in NYC and here in town; in local real estate offices; and at dinner tables and during quiet moments when no one is looking. The hard work is a day-in, day-out grappling with a reality that doesn’t easily bend to symbolism. The hard work is done not only here, but everywhere, wherever there is work to be done—by those willing to do it.

Civil Rights and Coffee Cups For All

Now for a bit of honesty: To our children, the Civil Rights tradition feels very ‘traditional,’ mainly because they are so young. Yet, they somehow seem to get it, most likely because their teachers are young and dynamic and able to contemporize the Civil Rights story for them. It’s important that they understand the reality that the civil rights “issue” is ongoing, always relevant and never ending----and there are many, many “issues.”

In a world, in a nation, that is increasingly global and truly multinational, the African American Civil Rights movement is quintessentially American and rooted in the 20st century (with earlier roots that go back to the 17th century and the beginning of American slavery). Lack of civil rights is a daily reality for millions of people worldwide. Their struggle is just as profound as our struggle. In fact, human slavery thrives now as much as it ever did. According to the Global Slavery Index, 21 million people worldwide are living as slaves, meaning they are either in a forced labor situation, in debt bondage or living as sexual slaves. Many of those affected are children. Of the 60,000 slaves in the United States, the largest percentage are 12- to 14-year-olds who are being used as sex slaves, because of their youth, vulnerability and sheer attractiveness to the adults who buy them.  For more information about global slavery, please visit: http://www.globalslaveryindex.org/.

Thanks to everyone who came this year…and to those of you who wanted to, but couldn’t. Coffee connects people and cultures, and in the process, reinforces a sense of community, personal dignity and well-being. Looking forward to next year---and looking forward to a time when our children will be able to raise their cups not only to Martin Luther King, Jr., but also to other leaders who successfully help bring civil rights to others here and everywhere else who struggle daily for their human dignity.