After Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, the Rev. DeForest “Buster” Soaries Jr. found his grandmother alone and crying at the dining room table inside her New Jersey home.
Then a 16-year-old junior at Montclair High School, he had never seen his grandmother cry before. “She was the strongest woman I ever met,” recalled Soaries, New Jersey’s former Secretary of State.
His grandmother didn’t believe in “stirring up a fuss” during the Civil Rights movement and had not taken to the streets to protest. But King’s death cut deep.
“It was at that moment that I said, ‘I better get to know more about Martin Luther King, Jr.’ because I wanted my life to be as impactful on somebody as his life was on my grandmother’s,” said Soaries, 70. “Every day since April 4, 1968, everything I’ve ever done, has been in pursuit of that commitment.”
Soaries will continue the activism he started years ago when the 113th NAACP National Convention comes to Atlantic City this week. While he’s attended dozens of NAACP conventions over the years, this will be the first national event where he will speak — leading a prayer at a breakfast event during the heart of the convention next Sunday.
According to local and national organizers, the week-long convention is coming to New Jersey at a hopeful and turbulent time for both the country and Black activists. Tensions in the nation have been amplified by political division, more than two years of the global COVID-19 pandemic, a barrage of mass shootings across the country, police shootings and the recent overturning of Roe V. Wade.
It’s also been over a decade since Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected President and two years since Vice President Kamala Harris made history by becoming the first woman and Black and Asian American to hold that office. When Ketanji Brown Jackson was sworn in as the 116th Supreme Court justice last month, she also made history as the first Black woman to serve on the high court.
But organizers said racial inequality and injustice — which touches crime, health, climate change, politics and other parts of American life — continue to linger.
It will all come together from Thursday to July 20 as NAACP leaders meet in person over seven days in Atlantic City to celebrate their past and plan for the historic organization’s future.
“I see America at a very important crossroads,” said Marcus Sibley, the NAACP New Jersey State Conference environmental and climate justice chair, who helped organize a panel at the convention.
“We’re at a point where we’ve had more conversations about the historic ills in Black and Brown communities than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” he added. “I’m 40 years old. I haven’t heard the number of conversations we’ve had now. Step two is what are we going to do about it.”
President Joe Biden and Vice President Harris have been invited to speak at the convention. Gov. Phil Murphy and other political leaders also are scheduled to address the attendees.
The convention will be the fourth time the NAACP’s national gathering will be held in New Jersey and the first time since 2019 that it will be held in person after virtual gatherings amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Trovon Williams, the national NAACP spokesman.
The national convention was previously held in Atlantic City in 1955 and 1968. Before that, Williams said, the Garden State hosted the event in Newark in 1922.
In 1922, Warren G. Harding was President and the country was decades from de-segregating public schools. The NAACP had just published “Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1918″ to provide some scope of the gruesome history of lynching.
When the convention last took place in New Jersey in June 1968, the nation was again in the middle of a historic moment. Just months earlier, the U.S. — still in the Vietnam War — had passed the Fair Housing Act, which prohibited the discrimination surrounding the sale, rental, or financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, and sex.
Soaries, an influential pastor with a long history in New Jersey, says he’s seen the nation change from a bevy of perspectives. He’s been the leader of one of Central Jersey’s largest churches, an activist who saw King as a teen and later worked alongside Rev. Jesse Jackson and the former Secretary of State of New Jersey under Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.
“I think generally racial attitudes have improved. It’s no longer unusual to see interracial couples … and all the explicit signs of segregation are gone. We have had tremendous progress,” said Soaries.
But the NAACP convention still has plenty of major issues to discuss, he said.
“I think the biggest failure has been the bottom third of Black America economically. You’ve got people who are poor today, who are the great-grandchildren of people who were poor in 1960. And there’s a group of people for whom all of this racial progress and economic uplift just seems to evade,” he said.
During the introductory press conference in advance of the convention, NAACP leaders pointed to voting and reproductive rights, student debt, and police reform as some of the most pressing issues facing Black Americans today.