Marilyn Zuniga addressing the Orange school board (Image courtesy of NJ.com) (135666)

“House negroes! All of you! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves! Let that young lady teach,” bellowed angry octogenarian activist Nat Williams at the apparent smugness and indifference to the community’s overwhelming support for embattled Orange elementary school teacher Marilyn Zuniga by Orange’s majority African-American Board of Education.

Last Tuesday, Zuniga, who was suspended for having her third-grade students send “get well” cards to a still dangerously ill Mumia Abu-Jamal, had to appear before the Orange Board of Education publicly. To her surprise, and to the board’s even bigger surprise, Zuniga was greeted with a human avalanche of support for what she did and for the retention of her job.

The support came from far and wide. Ralph Poynter, a legendary educator and activist with a 50-year history of agitation, came from New York City. Mark Taylor, who years ago organized Academics for Mumia, came all the way from Princeton University with a letter signed by distinguished academics such as Cornel West, Angela Davis, Vijay Prashad and James Cone in support of Zuniga.

Community organizations such as the People’s Organization for Progress, the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, the Black Is Back Coalition and the Orange Maplewood NAACP were all vocally in the building. Annette Alston of the Newark Teachers Association launched the people’s charge into that buzzing spring night by refusing to yield the microphone without completing her impassioned and detailed solidarity statement. She was literally escorted out of the Orange Preparatory Academy auditorium by an Orange police officer to the roar of that strong pro-Zuniga, pro-Mumia crowd.

“Marilyn Zuniga is a hero,” said an incredibly restrained Lawrence Hamm, the highly respected founding chair of the People’s Organization for Progress, who then implored the board to appreciate the gravity of the evening and what is at stake, and to at least “table” any decisions about this issue.

T.J. Whitaker, a teacher rep from nearby Maplewood schools, applauded the “educator, who, in the age of the selfie, has created an environment where her students were asked to send get well letters to someone like Mumia Abu-Jamal.”

“You are lucky to have her,” exclaimed Rutgers professor Khadijah White, echoing Whitaker’s sentiments.

“She is a good teacher,” said Chamaine Williams, a local parent who made it simple and plain. “Let her have her job back.”

The night got especially dicey when the board sought to cut off the community from being heard beyond 9:30. At that point, a furious Christina Mateo, the lone Latin-American on the board, walked out in protest, saying, “If the people can’t be heard, I am out of here.”

Finally, Zuniga herself got to speak. “I fell in love with my students from the first moment they walked into my class,” she said emotionally.

She was apologetic to her students and parents over the furor caused by the incident, and was still willing to resign if necessary if that is the best way to resolve the issue.

The crowd then roared, “Let her teach! Let her teach.”

After a recess of about a half hour, board President Patricia Arthur announced rather guardedly that “the Board of Education has decided to table any decisions regarding Ms. Zuniga’s status. She remains suspended with pay until further notice.”

Supporters are gearing up for the next board meeting May 12.