By Katie Zeck
The moment Dr. Rev. DeForest B. Soaries took to the lectern in the Cavalla Room of the Bart Luedeke Center (BLC) on Monday night, he commanded the audience’s attention the way a Baptist preacher’s booming voice should.
“If we learn anything this month, what [we should have] learned is that to the extent that something is wrong, somebody’s got to fix it,” Soaries said to a crowd of students, faculty, administration and a few of the Montclair, N.J. native’s old colleagues and friends.
As Rider’s keynote speaker for the closing ceremony of Black History Month, Soaries focused his speech on the importance of the respect and understanding we must have for each other as a community and the responsibility we have to take action and make a change if something is wrong.
“Things don’t just get better on their own,” Soaries said. “People don’t rise above hatred on their own. People don’t begin respecting each other on their own. Somebody has to make a decision to do something to make the community or the campus or the family or the world a better place.”
The event, hosted by the Black Student Union (BSU), opened with a few words from Dean of Students Anthony Campbell.
“Black history is American history; it’s everyone’s history,” Campbell said. “We don’t think about black history in one month. We highlight it in one month, but we shouldn’t think about it in one month. We should think about it all our lives.”
Campbell went on to provide an overview of the events held at both the Lawrenceville and Princeton campuses to celebrate Black History Month. Some of these events included a visit from the historic Tuskegee airmen, a presentation from the daughter of the founder of the Bordentown school and ex-Rider faculty member Mildred Rice Jordan and musical selections from Westminster Choir College (WCC).
Soaries served as the 30th Secretary of State of New Jersey from 1999 to 2002, making him the first African-American male to serve as a constitutional officer of the state. He is also the former chairman of the Federal Election Assistance Commission and is currently the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, N.J. Soaries was a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representative in 2002 and is the author of DFree: Breaking Free from Financial Slavery, a guide to living without debt, deficits and delinquencies.
Soaries was pleased to be back visiting Rider in the last days of Black History Month.
“I’ve been to historically black colleges that don’t put as much emphasis on African American history as much as Rider does,” Soaries said in the first minutes of his speech.
Soaries gave an anecdote of his experience at the funeral of Whitney Houston to exemplify the importance of knowing one another.
“I knew Whitney [Houston] since she was about 12 years old,” he said. “I helped control with media outside of the New Hope Baptist church where her funeral was being held.”
Many stations that were broadcasting in front of the church referred to the funeral as her “homecoming.” According to Soaries, that phrasing is incorrect.
“A ‘homecoming’ is when other people who went to school together go back and have a party to celebrate what used to happen — that’s a homecoming. A ‘home going’ is when your stay down here is over and you’re moving over to the other side.”
This, Soaries said, is a telling example of why there is a Black History Month and what can happen when people live together but don’t know each other.
“One of the reasons it’s important to learn other people’s stories is because we are not simply who you see today,” he said. “If we are going to respect each other in our community it helps by knowing each other’s stories.”
In regard to the struggles the African American community has faced, Soaries described the journey his race has made over the past 100 years from “being slaves to being president.”
“Any group of people who has suffered any indignities can rise above and be who God made them to be,” he said. “We must now become the people that look for things that still need to be changed, and there’s still things that need to be changed.”
Pursuing these changes as a way to improve our lives and the lives of others is what black history is about, according to Soaries.
“African American History Month will not only help us celebrate the past, but rededicate our lives to making a better future, inspired by the lives of people who never gave up.”