Murphy: We must celebrate Oliver’s life — and ensure her legacy lives on

Lt. governor, who passed earlier this month, will lie in state in Trenton and Newark

The state of New Jersey will begin a three-day celebration of the life of Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver on Thursday.

Oliver will lie in state in the Rotunda in the State House on Thursday and then in the historic courthouse in Newark on Friday. On Saturday, there will be a funeral service at the basilica in Newark.

In announcing that flags will fly at half-staff for a month — believed to be longest period of mourning in state history — Gov. Phil Murphy stressed that the best way to honor Oliver will be through the actions taken moving forward. He said he is of two mindsets.

“One is to mourn this precious gal — and to remember all that she meant to so many of us, measured by the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions,” he said. “And on the other hand, once we plow through these next number of days, it’s up to all of us to live out her legacy, as she would have wanted it to be, to lead, like Sheila.

“Be the public servant that Sheila was. Connect with everybody in this state. Most importantly, the folks most in need, too often left behind.”

Murphy, in honoring Oliver, said she was an inspiration to so many — but especially for women and those from underserved communities.

Oliver, the highest-ranking person of color to serve in state government, was the first Black women to serve as speaker of the General Assembly. While the lieutenant governor, she also served as the commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, a position that enabled her to have great impact in areas that are in need of the greatest assistance. She also served on a board of education and other local roles.

Murphy said it was an unmatched resume of service — which is why he so often sought her guidance, he said.

“As governor, I relied on Sheila to shape our administration’s policies on revitalizing our cities, expanding affordable housing, supporting our neighbors in need and so much more,” Murphy said. “And I relied on Sheila not only because of her expertise and brilliance, but because she brought her lived experience to the table, both as a child of Newark and as a longtime resident of East Orange.”

John Harmon, the head of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, pledged that his group would honor Oliver’s legacy by pressing for something she so coveted during her nearly six years as lieutenant governor: The completion and release of a wealth disparity study — a study from a task force that Oliver chaired and one that is widely expected to show the huge gap in the quality of life and opportunity for the underserved.

“Our word to the lieutenant governor is that the African American Chamber of Commerce is going to continue to press to see that we stand up goals here in New Jersey,” he said.

Murphy said he seconded the thought.

“That will continue to be a very high priority in her honor and memory,” he said.

It’s for all of these reasons that Murphy said he wants the celebration of Oliver’s life to be about the past and the future.

“That, to me, is our dual charge right now: Let’s celebrate her life and send her off in the style to which she is richly deserving,” he said. “And, separately, let us live in the years ahead, whatever our roles might be, as public servants and leaders, in the tradition in which she established.”