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Milwaukee Artist Andre Lee Ellis Reflects on Martin Luther King's Influence

Marti Mikkelson
Andre Lee Ellis studies passages from Martin Luther King's speeches.

Monday is Martin Luther King Day. In honor of the slain civil rights leader, Americans – including in Milwaukee will celebrate his life and teachings.

One event here will feature a rally at a central city church, followed by a march to the King statue on Martin Luther King Drive. Local performance artists will take part. We caught up with one of them as he prepared.

Andre Lee Ellis sits in a leather chair in his loft apartment in Milwaukee’s central city. His t-shirt reads “Black Lives Matter” and a laptop computer rests on his knees.

Ellis opens an email from the organizers of Monday’s rally. They’ve sent him passages from a speech Martin Luther King gave in 1967, to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta. Ellis puts on his spectacles and begins practicing.

“A basic challenge is to discover how to organize our strength and turns of economic and political power. No one can deny that the Negro is in dire need of this kind of legitimate power. Indeed, one of the great problems that the Negro confronts is the lack of power. Now, power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change. Now, we’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

Ellis says the passage packs a powerful message. “We’re going to always keep a group of people powerless when we don’t allow them to use the resources that have been deemed necessary for one to survive. We can always call you poor as long as we restrict the funds. Until we as a people begin to realize that the power is within us, we’ll stay powerless,” Ellis says.

Ellis is an actor and founder of the local community theater group, Andre Lee Ellis & Company. He’s also creator of a movement known as We Got This. It helps put young men to work in central city neighborhoods. Ellis says Dr. King has had a huge influence on his life and the biggest lesson learned is to be proud of who he is.

“I’m digging the skin I’m in and I teach that to all of my kids and what Martin Luther King’s dream does today, is give us a chance to reflect on all those times that he marched and when he fought. That’s why I think we can’t go wrong with the young protesters today that we see out there in the streets that are radical, that are making change,” Ellis says.

Ellis believes Dr. King would support today’s Black Lives Matter movement if he was still alive. Its protests sprang out of police killings of black men.

“I think he would say they matter. He would say shame on America that at this time, still we’re asking for black lives to matter, we should be so much further past that,” Ellis says.

Ellis finished our interview with more readings that an audience will hear later today in Milwaukee.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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