Long Live Vickie White
On July 1, 2009, I and many others in Highland Park, in New Jersey, and beyond, even to New Orleans' ninth ward, were stunned and devastated to hear of Vickie's sudden death caused by a pulmonary embolism.
Vickie is the last person I would have expected to lose any time soon. She was vibrant, energetic, courageous, full of life, full of passion, an indefatigable champion of the people. She was a fighter on behalf of the poor, the victims of injustice, the oppressed, children, those forgotten by the people in power.
I first got to know Vickie when she took part in organizing Bridge Builders here in Highland Park as a response to several racial incidents that occurred in 2001.
Vickie served on the Highland Park Board of Education for ten years, from 1994-2004, in the later years as its president, and attained the rank of Master Board Member in 2001.
She also served on the Highland Park Board of Health from 1993-1996. Although I never had the chance of serving on the board with her, as I was first appointed in 1998, Vickie and Southside Pride, the group she had formed to advocate for residents of Highland Park's south side and for people of color, played a central role in co-sponsoring the annual Health Fair beginning in 2001. About two years ago, the Central New Jersey People's Organization for Progress, under Vickie's leadership, took over co-sponsoring the Health Fair with the board, a fair to provide needed health services and education to those who might otherwise not have access to them.
Unlike so many in the public arena, Vickie didn't just talk the talk; she walked the walk. Often, that included literal walking, in the Million Women's March, the military recruitment and anti-war protests, and in the March 2009 International Working Women's Day Coalition held in New York City's Union Square. The rallying cry of this demonstration was "Bail Out Women and Our Communities, Not the Banks."
In 2006, Vickie organized the 21st Century Freedom Ride to New Orleans. Twelve adults and twelve high school students did real work to help rebuild New Orleans' Ninth Ward, which had sustained the most damage from flooding by Hurricane Katrina one year earlier. The group met with students living in the ninth ward and later shared their experiences with the media and with other student and community groups.
She ran a Children's Defense Fund Freedom School here in Highland Park, a five-week literacy program open to all in grades 1-12 focusing on African-American literature, in 2004-2005.
Vickie often traveled far in her fight for social justice. She attended the Rosa Parks Memorial in Washington, D.C. and organized a bus trip this year from Highland Park to President Obama's inauguration. She played a leading role in the Peace and Justice Coalition, composed of 120 organizations, that sponsored Peace Conferences at Rutgers Law School, an anti-war rally at Essex County College, and the largest black-led peace march ever in 2007. She was active with New Jersey's People's Organization for Progress (POP) for almost ten years, serving on many committees and eventually becoming chair of POP Central Jersey.
This list was never meant to be comprehensive in detailing Vickie's activities. That would take an entire book. The point is that in a time and place of so much empty rhetoric, Vickie took action, led real efforts that made real, lasting changes in people's lives. Her actions put so many of our politicians to shame.
Within the last year, Vickie took interest in the development of green jobs, participating in the Second Annual "Good Jobs, Green Jobs Conference" in Washington, D.C. and in the Edible Gardens Project, whose goal is to involve young people in environmental justice, green jobs, and training.
On a personal level, I remember attending a Trenton rally against police brutality with her in 2002 and how she announced that while there was not a single elected official present, there was a candidate for public office there, which was me. She walked Highland Park's sixth district with me and introduced me to its residents. On the night of the election, she left an inspiring message on my answering machine about how proud she was of my achievement even though I didn't win. The reality is, I am the one who was and is proud to have known and worked with Vickie, a citizen of the world who did so much for so many in such a short time.
Vickie chose to take care of her nieces and nephews and viewed them as her children. She was their support, their advocate, their guide, not because she was obligated to do so, but because she wanted to do so.
A regular attendee of my annual birthday parties, Vickie always expressed interest in the wellbeing of my two nephews, marveling at how quickly they grew, from infants to walking and talking little boys.
Without her, efforts for social justice need that much more from us. POP-Central Jersey is organizing the Vickie White People's Legacy Project, which will provide a chance for family, friends, and colleagues to share and record their recollections of Vickie, her life, and her work. Anyone who wants to participate in this Legacy Project is encouraged to contact POP-Central NJ at (732) 763-1134 or email firstname.lastname@example.org .
On May 6 of this year, at the annual Health Fair, Vickie and I had what we never imagined would be our last conversation. She understood my own passion for activism and my indignation at injustice, which I have not hesitated to express, especially in the local political arena. At times, that passion has led me to exercise less than ideal judgment during debates and arguments with people who supported my political opponents. Vickie had seen so much more injustice, unfairness, exclusion, and oppression than I have seen or experienced, yet she knew how to transcend anger, very much the way the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. did. Her last words to me, spoken on that night, were to let go of anger and outrage over political slights during the last ten years.
The cause of Power to the People will live on, but all who have taken part in it are so profoundly diminshed by her loss.
Not representing any group or person but myself, I ask that the Borough of Highland Park posthumously award Vickie the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award and the title of Volunteer of the Decade for the first decade of the 21st century.
For us, the survivors, the most appropriate remembrance is in the words of the fourth verse of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," known as the black national anthem.
"Let us move onward still,
keep our resolve until
we achieve unity for all mankind.
Look to the rising sun;
new work each day is begun;
daily we strive,
'till we true freedom find.
Save our hopes,
that we so long and so dearly did cherish,
lest our hearts,
weary with cruel disillusion
Stretch forth a loving hand,
You who in power stand.
Lose not our faith;
lose not our native land."
Godspeed, my friend.