Event Recap: 55th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Commission
By Jennifer Ersalesi
The Rutherford Civil Rights Commission celebrated their 55th Anniversary on Saturday, September 7th at the Rutherford Public Library. The Civil Rights Commission (CRC) was officially commissioned on September 6, 1964 after lifelong Rutherford resident, Bob Wesp, noticed a pattern of discrimination regarding housing in Rutherford. African Americans were only allowed to live on certain streets in one specific part of town. Wesp decided that there needed to be a way for concerned citizens to come together and protect each person’s civil rights and to promote diversity. Bill Galloway said, “Bob Wesp was a gem. He got into something he never thought a white man would be able to do.” After his collaboration with the Council members at the time, the Civil Rights Commission was finally established.
Steve Way, Education Chair of the CRC, and Michael Szarek, member of the CRC, hosted this special event and welcomed a number of guest speakers who shared their thoughts about civil rights within our small town, as well as nationwide.
Congressman Bill Pascrell, Jr. was the first speaker. He referenced William Carlos Williams’ poetry as he stood in the library that was built by Williams’ brother Edgar. He spoke about Williams’ ability to teach what humanity is and what rights we as Americans have through his written words. Pascrell said, “Silence is enabling and it is cowardly to cast one religion against another....Equality is deserved for all.” He congratulated the Civil Rights Commission on all they have accomplished and suggested, “Make noise, organize and get people to vote, because that is what is needed right now.”
Senator Cory Booker sent a letter that was read aloud by Michael Szarek. Booker remarked, “The Rutherford Civil Rights Commission upholds the principle that we are all our brothers’ keepers.” He congratulated the CRC on all of their accomplishments thus far.
Bill Einreinhofer, Rutherford resident and award-winning filmmaker, explained his role as a bridge between the past and present within Rutherford. In the past, Einreinhofer was a member of the CRC and he created an incredible series, “Rutherford Historic Narratives”, celebrates Rutherford’s diversity and the people in the community who have made it what it is today. People all over the world have viewed these videos and Einreinhofer said, “Other cultures can watch these videos and learn more about America by learning about our small town.” Einreinhofer’s father was a Council member in Rutherford when the CRC was formed. “Our town is as welcoming as it is because of all that people have done over time to protect civil rights. However, it is not a done deal. There is more work to be done,” Einreinhofer explained.
Councilwoman, Maria Begg-Roberson, an immigrant and the first African-American woman elected to the Council in Rutherford, has made her home in Rutherford. She spoke about how the people in Rutherford welcomed and embraced her and she believes that the CRC laid the groundwork for that to happen. Begg-Roberson (former teacher and current Education specialist in NYC) read a children’s book entitled We Came to America by Faith Ringgold, which explained the way all of the people from different cultural backgrounds have made America the beautiful, diverse country that it is today.
Joan Tidona, former educator and Civil Rights Commission Chair (for 13 years), has a long history in Rutherford. She grew up here along with her 27 cousins. Her grandfather grew up on Orient Way when it was a dirt road. “I am proud of the CRC’s active existence and the fact that discriminatory practice will not be tolerated in Rutherford,” explained Tidona.
Detective Al Anderson of the Rutherford Police Department told the audience, “I’ve been on the police force for 22 years. I was the third black officer in the history of Rutherford. I was nervous to start my career here. I was not sure how I would be received on the force.” Anderson quickly learned that the community and the police force was welcoming and supportive. After five years on the force, Chief Steve Nienstedt asked Anderson to become the School Resource officer as he believed the position was “tailor-made for him”. After going for training in California and starting his role as School Resource officer, Anderson quickly realized that the role did suit him and that he had a way to “influence kids to give back to their community”.
Anderson told the audience what he tells his own children and the children within the school system, “Do the right thing, even when no one is looking.”
Robert Lyons, Rutherford Pride Alliance Founding Member and CRC Member, spoke about what a long way civil rights have come over the last decade. “I am so thankful for the support of the CRC community and their assistance and support with the first Pride flag raising in Rutherford this past June. Special thanks to Bea Goldberg who helped us form the Rutherford Pride Alliance.” The LGBTQ community felt welcomed and accepted with over 400 people in attendance at the event. There were rainbow flags all over town at residences and businesses, which was also a way the community showed their support.
Lyons also thanked Bea Goldberg for helping to create the Rutherford Pride Alliance through which members “utilize their voices through education and visibility.”
Seventeen year old Sophia Masullo, the youngest member of the CRC, told the audience, “My generation is very politically motivated. I believe we will make great advances.” Masullo also reminded everyone that we should never become complacent about civil rights and we should always try to lead by example within our community.
Lastly, Bill Galloway, whose family has been in town since the 1880’s, explained all the changes he has seen throughout his time in Rutherford with regards to discrimination, segregation and the protection of civil rights. Galloway talked about how segregation affected him, his family and peers. The businesses on Park Ave were segregated and although he could buy an ice cream at the local ice cream parlor or soda shop, he could not sit at the counter or within the building to eat. Housing was segregated as most black people lived on Elm St, Grove St, Eastern Way and Meadow Road. Galloway’s father worked as a Legislative aid to Senator VanWinkle to research housing segregation in NJ. Click here to watch the historical narrative interview with Bill Galloway.
“The school system was always integrated in Rutherford. We were even one of the first high school football teams with a black football player. It was wonderful living in a small community where we knew all of our neighbors. Growing up in Rutherford, I made lots of friends,” Galloway explained.
"After researching the history of Rutherford for the last twenty years and doing oral interviews, I received a real education about how our community has become even more tolerant and diversified over the years," Bill Galloway.