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NEWARK — The U.S. economy is struggling, but in many black communities Americans are in the throes of a depression.
With unemployment exacting an outsize toll on African-American men and women, a coalition of community groups sees it as a crucial civil rights issue emerging from the country’s economic woe.
“We are more than a half-century away from the Montgomery bus boycott, but we are dealing with issues just as pressing,” said Larry Hamm, chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress.
Flanking a statue of Abraham Lincoln outside the Essex County Courthouse, Hamm and like-minded activists are starting a 381-day protest modeled after one of the most famous battles of the Civil Rights era — the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-56.
Today’s activists are calling on President Obama and Congress to institute a jobs program akin to the Works Progress Administration of the Great Depression. The WPA employed millions of unskilled Americans in public works jobs.
Unemployment is 16 percent among black Americans, a rate rivaling those of the 1930s. New Jersey’s jobless rate is 9.5 percent, while the national rate is 9.1 percent.
“Usually I like to say ‘I’m happy to be here.’ I’m not happy to be here,” said Theodora Lacey, an organizer of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. “But I’m glad we can be together.”
Passing cars honked in support, but the crowd of roughly 30 was no march on Washington. Organizers exhorted those in earshot to take an active role in the protest.
“Brothers and sisters, we have a ton of people who want to be the Super Bowl champion, but they’re not willing to get on the field,” said Rev. David Jefferson, pastor of Newark’s Metropolitan Baptist Church. “This is a crisis. This is not a scrimmage.”
The 381 days are modeled after the Montgomery boycott, sparked on December 1, 1955 when Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to leave her seat in the “white section” of a city bus. It ended when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation on public buses is unconstitutional.
Protesters in Newark will stand in front of the courthouse for several hours every day for the coming year.
Lacey, who was 21 when she helped organize the boycott, said injustices facing blacks and minorities are not as overt as in 1955, but are more dire.
“It won’t be sitting in the back of the bus,” she said. “It will be hunger.”