I’m deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Albert Pelham, President of the Montclair, New Jersey chapter of the NAACP, and Executive Director of the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corporation. This article just below nicely summarizes his many achievements as a civil rights activist and “social justice warrior.”
I didn’t know Albert well, but he was still an enormous inspiration to me. I met him maybe seven or eight years ago when I lived in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, and used to spend time in Glenfield Park, straddling Glen Ridge and Montclair. It was one of my favorite places in town–a wonderful park, but much more than a mere park, in large part due to Albert’s (and his mentor Wally Choice’s) efforts. I first started attending Albert’s “Montclair Justice” meetings in the Wally Choice Community Center there, formed soon after (and in response to) “Ferguson” and its aftermath. I never quite attended every meeting, or showed up at every event, but the ones I attended were memorable, and some of the fellow activists I met there became life-long friends.
Regrettably, circumstances took me away from Essex County, along with the activist community there, but Albert and I became Facebook friends, and I did my best to follow his work online–on social media, in local newspapers, and in the painstakingly detailed minutes he sent me of every NAACP meeting I missed. I found it hard enough to follow Albert online. Meanwhile, he managed successfully to hold a day job (in health care, at Aetna), and to integrate his work life with family life, an active social life, deep religious devotion, and visibly successful activism. I never quite figured out how.
I learned a lot from Albert, even from afar, about organizing, negotiating, and the value of persistence. But more than anything, I learned something about how to marry moral idealism to practical realism, and keep the marriage alive. Non-activists often deride activism for its supposed impracticality; a certain kind of activist, in turn, derides gradualism and compromise as tantamount to selling out. Albert was the living refutation of both points of view. He got things done, wrangling and haggling with Authority to get his way, but always with his eyes on the prize. Once you saw him in action, it became impossible to fall into despair over “the way the world is.” “The way the world” is, one came to realize, includes its potentialities for change at the hands of the steadfast. In that respect, Albert was a Prime Mover of justice. He got things moving with a justice-oriented trajectory, and kept them moving in that direction.
I once posted something on Facebook about a nostalgic trip I had taken to my childhood neighborhood on Grove Street in Montclair, where my family lived in the 1970s. Out of the blue, Albert chimed in to say that he’d lived across the street from us the whole time. It was a telling coincidence: he was always quietly there, and always, I think, will be. I now find it hard to imagine life in Montclair before I knew him, and hard to imagine Montclair without him. My condolences to his family, friends, and fellow activists. Rest in peace.