[Diocese of New Jersey] Nearly 200 people gathered on Oct. 30 for a rally at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Perth Amboy calling on the New Jersey Legislature to act on a bill to establish a reparations task force to confront racial disparities resulting from the legacy of slavery.
Supporters from around the state assembled at St. Peter’s to hear and cheer representatives from a coalition of civic and religious organizations addressing the importance of reparations. The Diocese of New Jersey was one of about 14 co-sponsors of the event.
“We are standing on hallowed ground,” said the Rev. Gregory Bezilla at the start of the rally, pointing to the nearby graves, which include Thomas Mundy Peterson, the first African American to vote in an election after the 15th Amendment was enacted on March 31, 1870.
A key message, interspersed throughout the rally, was the call “Say the word: reparations!”
Over the past few years, discussions and actions on reparations have accelerated. A number of American academic institutions, as well as Episcopal dioceses and the federal government, are considering various forms of reparations for their historic complicity in racist systems. Among the Episcopal institutions that have established reparations funds are Virginia Theological Seminary, the Diocese of Maryland and the Diocese of New York. The Diocese of New Jersey established its own reparations task force at its 2021 diocesan convention “to study how we as a diocese may address the original sins of racism and slavery.”
Noting that the group gathered steps away from the Peterson gravesite and near a major port for the slave trade and a stop on the Underground Railroad, Rohn Hein of Unitarian Universalist Faith Action said, “This is where the oppression took off.”
Hein laid out three next steps: Sign the petition calling for the reparations task force; call elected legislators; and, prepare for Legislation Day in Trenton on Nov. 11.
Perth Amboy is in the district of Assembly President Craig Coughlin, who was repeatedly invited to the rally but did not attend nor send a representative.
Despite Coughlin’s absence, Ryan Haygood of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice addressed the request to the Assembly President: “We are asking for the task force.”
Among those offering testimonials was Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, who suggested participants call their legislators and ask them to be co-sponsors of the bill.
Larry Hamm of the People’s Organization for Progress led a group chant: “They stole us. They sold us. They owe us.”
Responding to Coughlin’s absence, Bishop William Stokes of the Diocese of New Jersey concluded, “Silence is the weapon of the oppressor. Ignoring us is an offense. We merit being listened to by Speaker Coughlin, who is the speaker of our Assembly.”