Reflections on Martin Luther King by Montclair Residents Who Were in the Room When it Happened

Martin Luther King png sticker

Martin Luther King Day – January 16, 2023

Event: Edgemont School MLK DAY Ceremony

Date: January 16, 2023

Location: Bradford School, Montclair, NJ

Organizers:  Edgemont PTA, Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place (mGAP) and and with special thanks to Anita Clark and Carla McClain.

Speakers: Stanley White, James Eason, Ellie Bagli, Frank Millspaugh

Background:  Reverend Martin Luther King visited Montclair, NJ on September 11, 1966.  The occasion of this visit was the retirement of Reverend Rice, a fellow preacher and associate, from the Union Baptist Church on Midland Ave.  

In 1966, Dr. King was already a celebrated leader of the non-violent civil rights movement and his presence in Montclair was a very special happening. At first the members of the Union Baptist Church planned for Dr. King to speak at their church. However, when word of his plans to come to Montclair spread, people from all over the area clamored to hear him in person.  The Montclair High School auditorium was added as a venue to accommodate the burgeoning crowd. A week before the event all of the tickets to the auditorium were gone.  The planners then decided to add loudspeaker devices to the Montclair gymnasium so that more people could be in the room when it happened.  A total of 3000 people crowded into Montclair High School to hear this iconic figure. 

Three of our January 16, 2023 presenters were at the high school on September 11, 1966. The fourth presenter was the Civil Rights Director of the National Student Association in the 1960’s and actually worked directly with Dr. King to organize the college movements of the moment.

On September 11, 1966, to the chagrin of many Townspeople, protesters lined Park Street in front of the High School.

Stanley White: 17 years old on September 11, 1966, member of the Union Baptist Church, and Sunday School attendee at the Church. He was an usher in the High School Auditorium. Mr. White points to this moment as a defining one and he  now directs the MLK  Scholarship fund for students.

Jim Eason:  After having just returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam, seeing violence and bloodshed all around him, Mr. Eason decided to get into the High School to hear Dr. King. He showed up at the door and could not get into the crowded facility. As he was leaving, he saw the protesters on Park Street.  There were people that he recognized as fellow Townspeople. The fact that he saw people he knew from Town hurt him. He said, “This was my home town……Martin Luther King was not a person who advocated violence….” And the hurt has stayed with him all these years. Jim is on the Board on the Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place.

Ellie Bagli: 12 years old on September 11, 1966, she was one on the individuals crushed into the Montclair High School gymnasium.  Her more powerful memory of Dr. King, however, was Montclair’s response to his assassination when in 1968 she joined a huge crowd in Montclair mourning this loss to our nation and singing We Shall Overcome. Ellie points to these moments as the inspiration for her passion for activism over the years.  Ellie is on the Board on the Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place.

Frank Millspaugh: In his 20’s in 1963, Frank worked closely with Dr. King, John Lewis and Stokely Carmichael to organize the college student movement in support of civil rights. He recounts personal conversations with MLK which altered his life.  Frank is on the Board on the Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place.

The Children of Edgemont Public School, who inspired us to make this day of sharing happen, join Frank Millspaugh in the chant: “It Starts With Me!

…. and one final question answered by Stanley White

Martin Luther King and Rufus Clark

Historic Moment: Dr Martin Luther King shaking hands with Rufus Clark, Deacon, at Union Baptist Church, 12 Midland Avenue, Montclair, NJ. September 11, 1966.  

Dr. King was scheduled to speak in MHS auditorium on the afternoon of September 11, 1966. Only ticket-holders were to be admitted to the MHS event which had been distributed to members of Union Baptist Church as well as other members of the public. MHS was oversubscribed within days of ticket distribution.

Members of Union Baptist were pleasantly surprised when Dr. King agreed to an additional Sunday address at the 11 AM church service. This photo was taken after that service as Deacon Clark presented a document of appreciation to  Dr. King