As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday we need not look any further than our own YAP family for a meaningful connection to him.
It was March of 1968. Roger Smith was at the cusp of adulthood, and his home city of Newark, New Jersey was at the cusp of economic decline when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. paid them a visit. As part of a nation-wide tour, Dr. King spent a full day touring the city that a year earlier was the site of riots against the political and social exclusion and oppression of African American residents. Sitting in the auditorium at Newark’s South Side High School, Roger, now 62, remembers Dr. King pointing to his youth group and saying, “They are our future.” Dr. King was right- Roger lived and worked by his principles for the rest of his career. But it was Roger’s childhood, as well as his experiences coming of age during the Civil Rights Movement, that largely shaped his dedication to the youth of Newark and to YAP.
Roger, who was a YAP Program Director from 1986 until his retirement in 2011, grew up in Hayes Home, a public housing complex in Newark. He recalls his Newark neighborhood in the 60’s as a community where everyone knew one another, where there was access to whatever you needed within a few blocks of your home. He was influenced by the care of two strong women who nurtured his social consciousness and education from a young age. His great-grandmother moved to Newark from the south in the 1930s. She bought property and opened her doors to the entire community. “She would always make room at her table for anyone from the neighborhood that might need a meal,” Roger remembers. She taught herself to read and write, which likely influenced Roger’s mother, who was an avid reader and cultivated that love in her son (Roger calls himself a “nerd” because of his love for books and the History Channel to this day).
Beginning in the late 1950s, however, Newark began to change. Largely a manufacturing city, automation put people out of work as companies closed for business. Poverty increased while education and training struggled to keep pace with the changing economy. Roger remembers the chaos that ensued the year prior to Dr. King’s visit. Leading up to the 1967 riots, many African Americans felt disenfranchised and excluded. Relations with the local police department were in the least tense, if not hostile, with accusations of racial profiling and police brutality. Some complained they were prevented from having meaningful choice in where they lived due to redlining. That year, from July 12 through 17th, riots engulfed Newark. Roger, who was 15 years old and unaware of what was happening, accidentally partook in a protest at a police precinct in his neighborhoods, where people threw bottles and yelled. Over the next few days, Roger heard machine guns firing at the housing developments and saw cars burning in the streets from a reflection in his home. “I remember being mad when I learned that they burned down the ice cream parlor. It was July - where were we going to get ice cream?” Roger said that he credits his mother and the mothers across the community for keeping the kids safe by not allowing them outside, keeping them away from windows and having them sleep on the floor.
Just three days after the riots ended, the country’s first National Conference on Black Power convened in the city, opening the door to politicization. Roger later joined the Students for a Democratic Society, a non-party affiliated group that recognized the need for social reforms, and believed that these could only be achieved through understanding and addressing the interconnectedness between social, economic, and political issues. NSU took social action on issues ranging from Civil Rights to opposing the Vietnam War, organizing peaceful demonstrations such as rallies, sit-ins and rent strikes. It was as part of NSU that Roger attended Dr. King’s speech at the high school and shook Dr. King’s hand. The day was special not only to Roger but to the entire city of Newark, as Dr. King visited other schools, churches, families and luminaries including New Jersey’s future Poet Laureate Amiri Baraka.
For the next decade, Roger worked with gangs in the then-called “projects” in some of the toughest neighborhoods in New Jersey - Elizabeth, Patterson, and Jersey City. It was here in 1980 that Roger’s path intersected with Jeff Fleischer. They both worked for a project that closed down the infamous JINS Shelter in Essex County and helped to develop a community-based system of care to keep kids at home with support. Jeff knew of Roger’s former work and highly respected reputation. When Jeff went to YAP in 1985, he recruited Roger to do the same type of work with young people in the program. Jeff says that Roger's compassion and commitment are epitomized in this quote from Dr. King:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Drawing on Dr. King’s faith in the future, Roger’s proud of helping the kids he’s worked with see opportunity where many only see impossibility. He would give them experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have – such as going to museums, touring colleges, and meeting Roger’s “good friend,” former Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Roger’s “professional” accomplishments are highly personal – they include kids who stayed out of jail, who went to college, or who are now working for the system and trying to help other kids. “I love seeing them grow up and do positive things,” Roger said. “People used to beat them down, but I would say ‘they are good kids…they are my children.’”