On MLK Day, here’s the state of our state (for Black businesses)

African American Chamber head Harmon, as he always does, gives honest look at good — and not so good — for his community

John Harmon laughs at the memory. He clearly remembers the way Martin Luther King Jr. Day was commemorated just a few years ago.

Companies and elected officials would come around with a few bucks and a lot of empty promises on their commitment to the Black community. And then they would disappear again. Until the next election.

“Times have changed,” Harmon said.

Harmon, the head of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey and the starting point for any company that wants to make a 365-day commitment to change, said even he has been pleasantly surprised that the effort that begin in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 has only increased in strength.

“I keep waiting for the interest to drop off, and it hasn’t,” he said.

In the past week, Harmon said, he has had detailed discussion with leaders at Delta Dental, Chase, T-Mobile and Atlantic City Electric — companies from a diversity of sectors, showing just how widespread the interest is, he said.

Harmon gives a nod to Tom Bracken and the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce for the work it already has done and potentially can do.

“Given their footprint of corporate members, and given their desire to be more inclusive with Black businesses and Black people in terms of career opportunities, it could be game-changing,” he said.

He also salutes the New Jersey Bankers Association, New Jersey Community Capital and the many banks that not only have joined the African American Chamber, but have made good on promises to increase money available to Black-owned businesses.

He praises the utilities, especially Public Service Electric & Gas and Jersey Central Power & Light. And he singles out three key government officials: Tim Sullivan at the Economic Development Authority, Leslie Anderson at the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority and Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who heads up the Department of Community Affairs.

But, those who know Harmon know he’s not all sugar and spice. He calls it the way he sees it. And there still are a few things that don’t look right.

“The private sector is moving along at a good pace, but we still have some challenges on the public sector,” he said. “The trades are still not giving up any turf. We’re not getting any movement there.”

Simply put, Harmon wants nonunion companies in the trades to get more public-sector dollars.

“The state of New Jersey is supposed to be what, fairer and stronger?” he asks, then answers. “If we’re supposed to be progressive, then why can’t we get more work?

“You want us to pay prevailing wage? OK, we’ll do that. You want us to join up with the unions? We’ll talk about that, too. Folks wouldn’t mind being union if they know they are going to eat.”

Harmon wants more meaningful interaction on the issue.

“There’s a lot of motion over there, but no real action,” he said. “All we’re saying is this: If this is taxpayer money — why can’t more nonunion firms have access to those opportunities?”

Opportunity, of course, is what is really desired, he said. And, overall, there is far more of it.

The African American Chamber has responded the way any business would: By growing to meet the need.

Harmon said he has hired five staffers in the past year and is in discussion to open additional offices in the state — which would mean hiring even more people. He says this while acknowledging the idea of such a thing even a few years ago would have seem laughable.

Times have changed, he said. The efforts to help the Black community — after literally holding it down for centuries — have increased. But it’s still not perfect. Still not where it needs to be.

That’s why, on a day we honor a man who preached peaceful protest, Harmon still is putting up a fight for what is right.

“In short, the beat goes on,” he said. “We have a lot to do, but, right now, it is all very encouraging.”