M. William Howard Jr.: ‘We Risk Diluting Martin’s Message’

Rev. Dr. M. William Howard Jr.

Dr. M. William Howard Jr. is pastor of Bethany Baptist Church, in Newark, and a long-time civil rights activist. Howard told UrbanFaith that when he’s asked to speak in honor of Dr. King, if the date on his calendar is free, he says yes.

“My hope is that people come out of a genuine interest, and ideally some knowledge of the legacy of Martin, because since ‘86 and the legalization of the holiday, and now the monument, we run the risk of diluting the power of Martin’s message for our moment. … I’m from Georgia. I’m a graduate of Morehouse College. I met Dr. King. I was a teenager, so I didn’t know him that well. But I’m a product of his legacy,” said Howard.

Howard chaired the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission, which was instrumental in making New Jersey the first state to abolish the death penalty after the United States Supreme Court reauthorized it in 1976.

“When I was asked to chair the death penalty study commission, it was just one more thing in relation to my commitment to what Dr. King called ‘a revolution of values,’ ” said Howard.

UrbanFaith asked Howard what the biblical argument is against the death penalty.

“When many people are looking for arguments for or against things, with the Bible as the basis, they’re often looking for a proof text. I think it’s very difficult to transpose ethics and social policy, public policy, from the Hebrew Bible to the modern context,” said Howard.

“I’m looking at the New Testament revelation and the meaning of Jesus in his totality. I think I would say that we are so imperfect that I am troubled that we would undertake to kill a human being. There are so many elements that would be supportive of what I’m saying, not the least of which is the rather disturbing number of people who’ve been put to death in error,” he explained. “Jesus would not argue for retribution, although there are some supporters of the death penalty who know that the death penalty does not deter crime and so forth. But they believe if you commit a crime, you ought to experience retribution.”

Through his church’s Bethany Cares community development corporation, Howard oversees ministry to teenagers and young adults who are coming out of jail.

“We’ve had the opportunity to work with them for a period of time before they’re released to ensure that they had responsible mentors on the outside to whom they could come when they were released. They could get assistance in terms of anything from housing to clothing, just a whole range of things, including employment. We’ve had some very good outcomes and we’ve had some outcomes that have broken our hearts,” said Howard.

He partially blames the “proliferation of crime and other anti-social pathologies” in cities like Newark on the “collapse of the economic foundation” that he says has been occurring in post-industrial cities across the country since the end of World War II. But, to King’s three “giant triplets” of injustice: racism, militarism, and materialism, Howard added a fourth in his message.

“Number four is ignorance,” he told UrbanFaith. “We have a culture now that embraces ignorance. I have no idea why people are here. If they revere Martin, if they treasure his work, and his memory, then the next step is you resolve to pick up the mantle. There’s no way you can do that now without the capacity to analyze, and to strategize, and to be disciplined. We have a crazy percentage of adults in our city who are semi-literate. The people who insisted that I go to college, they were semi-literate, but they were damn determined that I wouldn’t be!”

“I’ve never been a politician, but I’ve always felt that a religious leader could not be aloof from anything that mattered in shaping the lives of people,” said Howard. He led the transition team for Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s first term in office.

Extraordinary, Ordinary Service

While these three men are well known for their work, three “ordinary” women were honored in a reception before the celebration.

Attorney Marcia Brown is vice chancellor for student and community affairs at Rutgers University’s Newark campus. Dr. Clement Price, who introduced her, said Brown applies her legal training to complicated issues in higher education. She and co-recipient Mary Weaver received the Steward of the Dream award.

Weaver is the mother of Randy Weaver, who was gunned down by East Orange police when he was 21 years old in 1999. She is vice chairwoman of People’s Organization for Progress. POP chairman Larry Hamm said Weaver could have been “consumed by grief” at the loss of her only child, but in getting justice for her son, she expanded the rights of others.

Twenty-six year old Linda Lloyd received the Visionary of the Future award for her work as founder of the youth mentoring organization, Young Urbanites Unite.

Both Brown and Lloyd spoke of their faith in God as a motivating and sustaining element of their service. Lloyd said God’s presence keeps her going through good times and bad. Brown said someone once told her that when you receive an award while you’re alive, it’s a reminder from God that He still has more for you to do.

“Young people need us right now,” said Lloyd. “We need each other right now.”

Those words and these six lives honor the legacy of Dr. King in the best possible way, with commitment to lives of service.

*To see photos from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center Celebration, click here.

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