Open Your Eyes
Dr. Walter Greason
8 November 2012
Veterans of every war deserve our care and support. Too often, though, most Americans exclude some important categories of service from being honored for their sacrifices. Soldiers certainly deserve a special category for the facing the unique circumstances of war. Still, police and firefighters take similar risks without the same national degree of recognition for their work. Worse yet, civil rights and peace activists who have transformed both the United States and the world over the last century receive no respect for offering their lives to the rest of us. One veteran who deserves more attention is Ermon Jones, a military veteran of the early Cold War, but, more importantly, a visionary civil rights leader who defined human equality for everyone in the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware areas.
Jones desegregated neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces between 1959 and 1989 as the leader of the Long Branch-Asbury Park National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. His counterparts in the Norristown area — Paula Robinson, Bonnie and Ernie Hadrick — have led similar lives of breaking barriers and building new opportunities for all people. They have all struggled to overcome color-blind segregation between communities like Trooper and West Norriton, like Belmar and Deal. These boundaries are nineteenth-century remnants of ‘home rule’ provisions that cripple local and county governments across the northeastern United States.
The existence of thousands of different municipalities from Massachusetts to Maryland multiplies the cost of police, schools, medical care, infrastructure maintenance, and public administration generally. Annexation had been the answer at the turn of the twentieth century as seen in the expansion of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and dozens of other cities. Suburbs organized to resist incorporation into larger communities, and the cost of their autonomy came due in horrific detail this past week with Hurricane Sandy.
Take a few minutes to view the images of devastation across the northeast. Read a few of the stories about lost lives, homes, and businesses. Then, realize that so much of the loss could have been prevented. As the forthcoming book Suburban Erasure shows, if the civil rights veterans like the Hadricks and Ermon Jones had become leaders of municipal planning efforts, consolidation of suburbs could have broken the local (and expensive) barriers to community maintenance and prosperity. School districts like Freehold and Phoenixville would not struggle to avoid bankruptcy every three years. Enclaves like Lower Providence and Manalapan could not horde the benefits of explosive growth among commercial ratables.
Consolidation among suburban communities — working-class and wealthy, highly educated and very skilled — by 1970 would have healed most of the political divisions that continue to shape election after election for the last two generations. It is time people found a new way to craft their judgments about the future of the nation and the world. Civil rights veterans held the key fifty years ago as they continue to hold it today. Communities cannot survive — economically or socially — by remaining committed to nineteenth-century ideas about segregation and status. Consolidation will reduce municipal tax burdens and facilitate essential conversations about the common values everyone shares. Ermon Jones saw that communities rely on each other, just as members of a family do. Each municipality is less a reflection of an individual’s achievements than a manifestation of many generations’ sacrifices to live together in peace. A statue of William Penn makes for a great symbol, but landmarks to the Quaker process of consensus-building would be more accurate. Norristown, Whitpain, and Blue Bell must find this common ground, just as Red Bank, Colts Neck, and Asbury Park must rebuild together. Perhaps all of these great places can rely on each other to revitalize America.
Dr. Walter Greason is a Visiting Professor of History at Monmouth University. You can follow him on Twitter (@worldprofessor1).