Councilman William McKoy is facing criticism from the city’s chapter of the NAACP for making an insensitive remark about civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. during a mayoral forum on Wednesday night.
McKoy slammed his opponent councilman, Andre Sayegh, for skipping the debate to attend an observance commemorating the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination.
“I would point out an empty chair tonight that seems to be the big elephant in the room. This young man is absent when there’s a difficult choice. He is absent when there’s a difficult vote. He’s absent when they have to be held accountable,” McKoy told the audience on Wednesday night at the Christopher Hope Center on Temple Street. “You want to tell me you are more concerned about Dr. Martin Luther King assassination? Well, Martin Luther King Jr. is dead. We’re alive and we’re here.”
McKoy’s comments were condemned by pastor Kenneth Clayton, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) of Paterson.
“These words by Mr. McKoy regarding Dr. King are absolutely disgusting and reflects a clear lack of regard and compassion for what April 4, 1968 meant and means to Black people and people of good will of all races, creed, and color,” wrote Clayton in a public statement on Thursday morning.
McKoy on Thursday morning suggested his comments were taken out of context. “You have to look at the context,” he said. His daughter defended him on social media against Clayton’s condemnation by citing a Bible verse from the Book of Joshua, “After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide: ‘Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them—to the Israelites.’”
“While the words used,” wrote Tiffany McKoy, taken out of context, “seem devastating if we see the heart and the power behind the sentiment we too can be motivated by the essence of Dr. King.”
“The words were not taken out of context. I heard the statement myself. I’m not taking it out of context. I know what I heard,” said Clayton. He said McKoy would be better for it by recognizing the insensitive remark, issuing an apology, and moving on.
Some people were offended by McKoy’s statement and called for him to issue an apology.
“People are outraged. Many of my constituents found the comments to be disgraceful and distasteful,” said Sayegh, who has received a flood of calls and text messages. “He can learn a lot from Dr. King. He can start by taking the hate for me out of his heart.”
Sayegh attended the observance at the Calvary Baptist Church. He said the commemoration ran parallel to the forum. He viewed the 50th anniversary event as too important to miss. He had committed to attending the observance long before the forum was scheduled, he said.
“I won’t be around for the 100th. I’m here for the 50th. I wanted to observe,” said Sayegh.
“I’m committed to them now. Not just a ceremony,” McKoy told the audience at the forum. Five of the six men running for mayor attended the forum. Sayegh attended 2 of the 3 past forums.
“It’s an insensitive remark. No question about it,” said city resident Wayne Witherspoon. “He owes every person, who honors and loves Dr. King, an apology.”
Witherspoon, who is African-American, endorsed Sayegh two months ago. He said he was deeply offended by the remark especially by the timing of it.
“To a lot of people, he’s really not dead. His actions and ideas are still very much alive and they inspire people,” added Sayegh. “His actions inspired all of us irrespective of our race, creed, or culture.”
Activist Corey Teague defended McKoy and criticized Clayton.
“Dr. King wanted the people to keep going,” said Teague, who was in attendance at the forum. “McKoy was not bashing Dr. King’s memory. There were 100 black people in the room who applauded after he said move on.”
Witherspoon said people were clapping more for the attack on Sayegh and less for the controversial statement about King. He said people were “caught up in the moment.”
Teague has made public comments backing McKoy’s candidacy for mayor. He criticized Clayton for condemning McKoy.
“That’s the same NAACP president who never gets active when we have young black men getting killed in our streets. That’s the same NAACP president, who is quiet, when our black men and women, are suffering from poverty in the community. I don’t have a lot of respect for him,” said Teague.
Political activist Ernest Rucker also defended McKoy. He did not view the statement as offensive or insensitive. He also attacked Clayton. “Clayton has been missing in action,” said Rucker. “What’s he done as NAACP president?”
Rucker is openly supporting McKoy for mayor.
“I think my track record of 21 years speaks for itself. I’m not going to get into a tit for tat war with people,” said Clayton. “I’ve been a supporter of councilman McKoy at times. It’s not a personal attack. I just think his comments made last night were insensitive and ill-informed.”
Some said if McKoy were not black his political career would be over as a result of the remark.
“He’s a black man who is saying we got to move forward,” said Teague of McKoy. “We’re not disrespecting Dr. King. We have to move on as a community.”
McKoy’s remark from the forum is below:
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This report was updated at 2:33 p.m. with further comments from pastor Clayton.