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WUWM's Teran Powell reports on race and ethnicity in southeastern Wisconsin.

Milwaukee Carries On MLK's Legacy With 35 Years Of Celebration

Robert and Talbot Trudeau/Flickr
Martin Luther King Jr. in Shreveport in August 1958

Monday the country commemorates the legacy of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Milwaukee has been celebrating King for 35 years with events at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts

Social injustices in America came into sharp focus on Aug. 28, 1963. On that day, thousands gathered at the Washington Monument, and more around their radios and TV sets, to hear the King deliver his now famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

King's birthday is recognized as a federal holiday and has been celebrated on the third Monday of January since the 1980s. The Marcus Center hosted its Martin Luther King Day celebration Sunday and has hosted an annual MLK Day celebration every year since 1984. 

Paul Mathews, president and CEO of the Marcus Center, explains how this celebration has lasted this long.

“We are a community performing arts center, so when we open our doors, we open them to all of Milwaukee. And as Milwaukee becomes more richly diverse in its population, we want to continue to recognize that and program for that. And the fact that Dr. King’s legacy really continues on and is really of importance to people of all races and cultures is another reason why I think it continues here in Milwaukee,” he says.

The Marcus Center’s celebration features students who’ve won contests for their art, speeches and writing, and also performance art from local multicultural groups — all saluting King.

Mathews says the event has evolved over the years, with more multicultural groups participating and more students wanting to be involved.

“A lot of what comes out of this program is unity in the community and also inspiration because we see young people who are the future leaders of this community stepping forward and expressing what they believe in and what they want to do to make this a better community,” he says.

Mathews says a key goal in this year’s celebration was to address what’s going on in the world today and letting students decide what they wanted to write or talk about.

One of them is Janiya Williams, the first-place winner of the writing contest. In her essay, the 8th grader passionately wrote about police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, and stereotypes about the African-American community.

Credit Teran Powell
Janiya Williams.

She says she has a message for people, mostly adults, who read her work:

“Even though I’m young, they might not think I know so much about black people getting treated differently, but I see it. I’ve been treated differently because I was different at school, and that’s why I wrote my speech. I actually wrote it out of anger because I was so upset about the fact that police felt that they was OK because we were black that we deserve to get killed or that we deserve to get shot, like it’s really not that serious. If it was a white person, they would get treated completely different, but because we’re black we get stereotyped or we get called names, but that’s not OK. So that’s what I’m trying to let them know — I know what’s going on.”

Williams says although she’s happy she won first place, it’s not about winning. She’s just pleased to know that she’s touching people and they’re understanding what she’s saying.

Support for Race & Ethnicity reporting is provided by the Dohmen Company.

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Teran is WUWM's race & ethnicity reporter.
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