HILLSIDE, NJ — If you are feeling a sense of deja vu, you may be in Hillside.
The township of Hillside celebrated Martin Luther King Day not once, but twice, and it has many people either scratching their heads or downright furious.
On Monday, Jan. 16 — the official day of the federal holiday marking the birth of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. — the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Committee of Hillside held its third annual ceremony and flag-raising in honor of King, followed by a luncheon at Hillside Public Library, which was sponsored by UNICO, an Italian-American service organization.
The ceremony, in which excerpts of King’s sermons were read by students and reflections on King’s life were shared by several members of the committee and community, was held at a park near the high school before moving to town hall for the flag-raising.
The community event featured members of the Hillside High School Color Guard, and was attended by the mayor and council, police officers and firefighters, and committee and community members.
Township officials and employees, as well as members of the community, were informed of the event when flyers were handed out at a recent council meeting.
The MLK flag, which features a large portrait of King, along with his name against a backdrop of symbolic colors and stars, is raised in front of town hall each year on MLK Day and then is displayed throughout the month of February, which is Black History Month.
But the next day, Tuesday, Jan. 17, the flag was gone.
Hillside Councilman George “Tony” Alston told LocalSource that he was informed about the missing flag, which he was entrusted with by community activist and Doris Nicholson, one of those involved in the MLK Day ceremony, who passed away last year.
The flag was purchased by Alston, Nicholson, former Hillside BOE member Arthur Garrett, and other involved members of the community.
“The flag was taken down on Tuesday and taken to the clerk’s office,” Alston said in a phone call.
According to Alston, Hillside’s DPW employees were directed to remove the flag.
“The DPW director should have called me to let me know that it was taken down,” Alston said of the MLK flag. “I was responsible for it.”
Residents were in an uproar after the removal of the flag was reported.
Alston, along with other council members, is pointing to Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson for ordering the removal of the flag.
“In my opinion, she did this because her name wasn’t directly involved with this,” Alston said of Garretson. “The mayor wanted to get credit for it because she’s the mayor, but she brought nothing to the table. I run all of my events out of the library, and her name isn’t attached to anything. This was not my event, this was a community event. It wasn’t me, the councilman, on Monday. It was me, the citizen.”
On Wednesday, Jan. 18, Alston sent a memorandum to Garretson, requesting that the flag be put back.
“Please accept this memorandum as a formal request to have the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. flag hung on the pole in front of the municipal building,” wrote Alston. “I believe this would be encouraging to residents and employees in celebrating Black History Month this year.”
According to Alston, when he contacted DPW Director James Ballentine about why the flag was removed, he alleges that Ballentine told him three different versions of the story.
“First he told me that he thought the event was over and the flag should be removed,” Alston said. “The second version was that he saw something on the flagpole that he couldn’t identify and he wanted to see what it was. The third version was that the mayor said that the American flag was tattered and it needed to be taken down.”
On the flagpole alongside the MLK flag, before it was removed, was an American flag, as well as a POW flag.
Alston picked up the flag from the clerk’s office on Thursday morning.
On Thursday, Jan. 19, at 7:01 p.m., Alston received an email from Garretson informing him that an MLK ceremony would take place the next day, Friday, Jan. 20.
“Please be advised tomorrow we will do the American flag as well as MLK flag at 11 a.m.,” wrote Garretson.
The next day, Jan. 20, Garretson held a second MLK Day ceremony, where she also unveiled six new police SUVs and raised the American and POW flags on the flagpole in front of town hall. The Hillside High School ROTC, police officers and firefighters and other township officials and community members attended, and the next day, Garretson posted a press statement on Facebook, citing the event as a “three-fold public service announcement,” to bring recognition to this day in history, presidential inauguration honored by new flags,” and the unveiling of six new 2017 Ford Explorer SUVs.
There was one glitch in the days’ events, however, as the MLK flag — the one that been removed and brought to the clerk’s office — was not there.
Garretson reached out to Alston, who was already at work and not in the area, on Friday, the day of the second ceremony — asking him to bring the flag to town hall. Alston had picked up the flag hours before Garretson sent the email informing him of the second MLK flag.
Ballentine said that he had reached out to Alston several times on Thursday but received no response.
Several council members told LocalSource that they were not informed of Friday’s ceremony until that day, when they were already at work and unable to make arrangements to attend.
Hillside Councilwoman Diane Murray-Clements told LocalSource that it was confirmed that Garretson gave the directive to remove the flag.
“It is unfortunate that a political ego is so big that the community suffers once again,” Murray-Clements said. “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream was to bring positive change that incorporated freedom, education and equality. The MLK Day ceremony was planned by UNICO and Councilman Alston was successful as always,” she said, also noting Nicholson’s involvement.
“The fact that the mayor blatantly removed the flag from the lawn of town hall to have another unplanned event so she could be the center of attention is a juvenile reaction. Students were pulled out of school for a last-minute staged ceremony. The council has worked three tumultuous years trying to support the mayor, but it seems she only wants to undermine and deceive the public.”
According to Ballentine, both the American and POW flags were tattered and needed to be removed, and in order to remove those flags, the MLK flag needed to be removed.
“The POW and American flags were very tattered beyond repair,” Ballentine told LocalSource in a phone call, who said a police officer had ordered new flags, but when someone from the municipal building went to pick up the flags at the department, the flags were not there.
“In order to get to both flags, you had to remove the MLK flag,” Ballentine said, stating that members of his staff took it down.
Ballentine also said the staff who removed it were unaware that the flag was an MLK flag.
But Alston, along with others in the Hillside, want to know why the replay button was hit on a celebration that has run successfully for several years.
“For the past two years, everything was successful,” Alston said. “It brought racial equality throughout the town. It’s not a black thing, a Jewish thing — it’s an everybody thing. This is unbelievable. For the past two years we always had an MLK ceremony. What happened on MLK Day was fine. Why’d the mayor have to rebrand it?”
LocalSource reached out to Garretson about the situation regarding the flag, as well as the new police SUVs.
“Six suvs are now parked outside the police station for use — it is a beautiful sight,” Garretson said in an email. “The older vehicles are now part of different fleet. I will keep exceeding some folks expectations.”
The issue of the flag was not addressed by Garretson.
According to Alston, the event is a community event, not a political event, and the event is supposed to be about unity and community.
“We always have it in the library because it’s a neutral zone,” Alston said of the community luncheon that always follows the ceremony. “Everything I do is self-funded or purchased through donations. This is about the King dream. … It was a beautiful day and people felt good.”
Alston said after he learned that the flag has been removed, he was disturbed and questions the motivations behind its removal.
“She raised a new American and POW flag at Friday’s ceremony,” Alston said. “But she didn’t do that for 9/11 or Memorial Day, so what made today so special?” Alston said Friday. “To do what? The MLK ceremony was on Monday, so what made Friday special? It was a horse-and-pony show.”
“After this, I was crushed,” Alston said. “I’m not going to say I wasn’t hurt. I was hurt. I spoke with a few council people, and they said that the flag should be put back. Let the public speak out. This is not my fight, this is a community fight, and I have to defend the community.”