Montclair Teacher Honored at Martin Luther King Scholarship Breakfast

Montclair, NJ – If you’ve never attended Montclair’s annual Martin Luther King Scholarship Breakfast, put it on your calendar for next year.

This year was the 34th time the event has taken place and a big crowd packed Montclair High School’s George Inness atrium to share a hearty breakfast, support the Scholarship fund and be inspired by speakers and performances to follow in Dr. King’s example.

Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings has been attending for years.

“I used to come every year with Mr. [Albert] Pelham and it was something we did together,” said Cummings, adding how the event brings together many cross sections of Montclair… “the school system, government officials, police, everybody comes together to celebrate and honor a man whose life is dedicated to making things better for all. Dr. King came to Montclair and spoke at Union Baptist Church and at the high school. To have that connection, not many communities can say that.

“It’s a calendar moment,” says Cummings of the annual scholarship breakfast. “It’s on your calendar, and you come to honor and recognize a wonderful legacy.”

Full house for Montclair’s 34th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Scholarship Breakfast

The history of the scholarship fund dates back to 1987 when the Township Council appointed a commission to explore a memorial to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The idea for a scholarship fund that would serve as a living memorial was proposed; and in 1988 a resolution was passed by the town supporting its establishment.

Every year a scholarship is awarded to a deserving Montclair High School senior. The trouble, says Stanley White, president of the MLK Scholarship Fund, is how hard it is to choose from all the young qualified candidates.

At Monday’s breakfast, Dr. Renee Baskerville, former Fourth Ward Councilor, served as emcee for the event that featured musical performances by Montclair High School’s Madrigal Choir including “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “We Shall Overcome” as well as powerful spoken word performances by two students from the Cecily Tyson Performing Arts School in East Orange.

In her invocation, Rev. Anya Sammler-Michael, pastor of Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair, shared some of the history of the James Howe House in Montclair and the struggle to save it.

Mayor Sean Spiller stressed how important it was for the community to come together for moments like this.

“I think as we come together to celebrate and honor someone, it’s also a recommitment to our service, the service that each one of us has ahead of us and what that means and what that looks like,” said Spiller.

Spiller then went on to introduce Glenfield Middle School teacher Daniel Gill.

“As a fellow educator, I have to say, I’m also so impacted by Mr. Gill’s years of service — over 50 years. That’s a tremendous responsibility and a tremendous impact. We all know the story of Mr. Gill and his empty chair in a classroom and how it really dates back to bringing his buddy Archie to a birthday party and his buddy Archie being denied entrance.”

Dr. Baskerville shared many of Gill’s impactful contributions — including being involved in the desegregation of schools in Montclair and the adoption of Glenfield School as a Peace Site. Gill coordinated the centennial of Glenfield and in 2004, with his students, wrote a book on the school’s history. He is the recipient of the Robert Merrill Scholarship award from Cornell University and was also honored with an award from Montclair NAACP.

Dan Gill speaks before an enthusiastic crowd Monday, sharing an inspiring letter he received from someone who had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King.

Gill, in his speech, emphasized that “words matter” and how he spoke with his students about how the first words Martin Luther King might have ever read were “Whites Only.”

“I can imagine him walking down the street holding his mother’s hand and seeing those words of exclusion,” said Gill. “And yet, this man grew from that hatred into a man who preached.”

“Today, we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King. He’s probably the greatest wordsmith of my time. One of the things that when you’re 75, you forget, is that not everyone saw Martin Luther King. Not everyone was present. And so his words are to us, those of us who are older, something we remember, something we hold in our heart. And I think what’s important for us today is to remind ourselves that we need to make sure that young people hear his words.”

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