Tribute to NJ Assemblyman John S. Watson Stresses Civic Engagement as Smithsonian’s ‘Voices and Votes’ Exhibit Ends Its Run at MCCC Gallery


West Windsor, N.J. – As the final special event presented in conjunction with the Smithsonian’s travelling exhibit, Voices and Votes: Democracy in America, Mercer County Community College (MCCC) paid tribute to New Jersey Assemblyman John S. Watson on June 17 at the MCCC Gallery.

Among the attendees were three generations of the Watson family, who vividly recalled his legacy of selfless public service. (U.S. Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, representative from New Jersey's 12th congressional district, was unable to attend due to illness.)

“My father was not about standing behind a microphone or getting his picture taken,” said Watson’s son, John Watson Jr. “He focused on what we could do as a society to make people’s lives better.”

MCCC Acting President Barbara Basel welcomed the guests, noting that it has been an honor for the college to host the Voices and Votes exhibit. “Thinking about the American experience, it’s more important than ever to use our voices and our votes, because they do matter,” Basel said, adding that Watson was a man of courage, principles and action. “He would want us to take action – to make our voices heard, to vote, to engage in civil discourse, and to stand up to those who would erode our freedoms and liberties. It’s our responsibility to actively participate in the democratic process.”

MCCC student Carlos Rodriguez, who served as a docent for the exhibit, shared his concerns over people becoming jaded about democracy and the need to stay engaged. “It is my conviction that democracy is a process. Democracy is always becoming. It demands a higher degree of human conduct,” he said, observing that Bonnie Watson Coleman and her father, John S. Watson, are the epitome of what it means to be citizens of the Republic.

Carin Berkowitz, executive director of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities (NJCH), which partnered with MCCC to present Voices and Votes, expressed her appreciation to those involved with the Mercer exhibit, as well as the Watson family. “NJCH does a lot to inspire civic engagement and participation. That participation is a sacrifice. There is no better model of civic engagement than the Watson family. You make New Jersey a better place,” she said.

Watson's son, Bill, recalled the family’s move from South Jersey to Trenton in the 1950s. Originally a small business owner, Watson Sr. answered the call to public service in response to witnessing the unfair treatment of his customers. He gradually gained prominence in Democratic politics and, in 1970, became the first African American to serve on the Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders (now Mercer County Commissioners). He was then elected to the New Jersey General Assembly, representing the 15th Legislative District for six terms and chairing the Appropriations Committee.

Bill Watson noted that there was a different tone in politics in his father’s day. “Democrats and Republicans would argue across the aisle. Then they would go to Lorenzo’s [Lorenzo’s Café in downtown Trenton], break bread, and come to a compromise. We don’t have that today. The only way that stops is to get more engaged.”

MCCC Professor Ken Howarth, who coordinated the exhibit at Mercer, added, “When we first proposed this exhibit and its connections to Mercer County, we looked at John Watson’s legacy. He did the work. He rolled up his sleeves, and he talked to people on the streets. John Watson and his family are exemplars of public service and what we diverse Americans have and aim for in common.”

According to Howarth, the lessons learned in the Voices and Votes exhibit are an extension of MCCC’s new Civics Initiative. “In addition to our good work educating and training our students for future careers, we have a role in preparing them for these trying times,” he said.

Howarth observes that voting in America, with all of its progress and despite its setbacks, is part of being an informed and active citizen – every day and beyond the ballot box.

“Civics, and the ethics and critical thinking that come with it, is one of the remedies for the uncivil, uncompromising, and even rancorous discourse and practices that are currently testing our democratic principles and peace,” Howarth said. “Mercer has a responsibility to promote a better way forward for our students and our community.”

Assisting with the exhibit were members of the New Jersey League of Women Voters, including Pat Supplee, who heads up the League’s Energizing Young Voters program and trained several student volunteers as docents. The MCCC Marketing Club, a student organization, created a plan to promote the exhibit and posted announcements to social media.

The exhibit at Mercer was presented in partnership with the NJCH from May 18 to June 20. In addition to the Watson Tribute, the Gallery hosted an Opening Reception featuring former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, a Future Voters Day, a Veterans Reception, and an Evening with the Trenton Civic Trustees. MCCC is one of only six community colleges in New Jersey selected by NJCH to host “Voices and Votes." The exhibit will be on display at Atlantic Cape Community College from July 11 to August 13. (The complete exhibit schedule can be found here.)

Voices and Votes is based on an exhibition currently on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History called American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith. This exhibit has been made possible by NJCH and is part of the Museum on Main Street series (MoMS), a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution and the Federation of State Humanities Councils. Support for MoMS has been provided by the United States Congress. To learn more about Voices and other MoMS exhibitions, click here.



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Bill Watson shared some of his father's story. John Watson Sr. was the first African American to serve on the Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders (now Mercer County Commissioners). He was then elected to the New Jersey General Assembly, representing the 15th Legislative District for six terms.



 Student Carlos Rodriguez, who served as a docent for the exhibit, spoke passionately about engaging in the democratic process.



 Three generations of the Watson family gathered for a tribute to family patriarch John Watson Sr.


From left, Valerie Popp and Carin Berkowitz, of the NJ Council for the Humanities, and MCCC Professor Ken Howarth, who cooridnated the exhibit at Mercer.


The Voices and Votes opening reception featured former Governor Christine Todd Whitman.