39th City-County MLK Jr. Day Observance at the Overture Center: Fighting for Quality Education

King Coalition

King Coalition co-chairs Ed Lee (l-r) and Dr. Gloria Hawkins

by Jonathan Gramling

While a key part of the modern-day Civil Rights Movement has been the right to vote — resulting in the Voting Rights Act of 1964 — the beginning push was to abolish “Separate But Equal,” the underpinning of America’s apartheid system in education., public accommodations and other areas. That push resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 that “Separate but Equal” was unconstitutional.

Thurgood Marshall, the lead NAACP lawyer at the time — and later the first African American Supreme Court justice — thought that segregation in education would fall away as law-abiding citizens followed the law of the land. But, as it turned out, the Brown decision was just the beginning of the fight to desegregate America’s public schools as white people resisted nationwide.

One of the key battles was when Republican President Dwight Eisenhower in essence took over the Arkansas National Guard and ordered it to protect the African American students facing angry crowd as they tried to attend Central High in Little Rock. Those students would later be known as the Little Rock Nine.

“The segregated schools were poor in terms of their facilities and books, which in many instances were outdated,” said Dr. Gloria Hawkins, co-chair of the King Coalition. “And so separate was not equal. And therefore, integration was just really about improving the quality of education and the opportunities that people would have.”

Terrance Roberts, one of the members of the Little Rock Nine, will be the keynote speaker at the 39th Annual City-County MLK Holiday Observance at the Overture Center on Monday, January 15th. It was a profile in courage.

“Talking about courage, that took a lot of courage for those Little Rock students to walk into school being protected from an angry mob by the National Guard,” Hawkins observed. “For teenagers to really have within themselves that kind of courage and commitment to education was amazing. They volunteered to do this. And I applaud not only them, but I applaud their parents and the people within the community that supported them.”

Ed Lee, the other co-chair of the King Coalition, stands in awe of people like Roberts.

“When I was reading the bio of Terrance Roberts, that point that Gloria just made about him volunteering, that struck such a cord with me,” Lee said. “I think of myself as a high school student. And I’m like, all I wanted to do was party. And here this young man put his life at risk, volunteered to do that. To me, what an opportunity to hear from such a brave person.”

The co-chairs remarked on the timeliness of Roberts’ visit to Madison as the access to a quality education is once more under attack.

“I  think if the folks who are leading these book bans and this attack on Critical Race Theory had their way, we wouldn’t tell the story of someone like Terrance Roberts,” Lee observed. “There seems to be a train of thought among some people in our country that we shouldn’t be teaching people the history and the experience of what someone like Terrance Roberts went through. I can’t wrap my mind around that. I think having him here this year was a real intentional thing. We are going to rise above that. We are going to make sure that stories like Terrance’s continue to be told as a part of our history and we learn from it and get better from it.”

Indeed the fight for a quality education continues.

“It seems as though there is so much fear and hatred,” Hawkins said. “So you have the book banning. And also when we began to really look at what is going on in higher education in this state, we don’t even have to begin to look at other states, the things that we are trying to do as it relates to DEI and belonging. People don’t realize that diversity, equity and inclusion are also about the notion of all of us belonging, not just people who are marginalized, but all of us because it takes all of us to continue to make our communities and societies the kind of communities that will embrace and enhance all of us and the quality of life for all of us.”

The oppressive policies in education and elsewhere tend to blame the victim. If there is tension, then it is equity movements that are to blame. If Euro-American students feel uncomfortable when presented the whole history of the United States included the institution of slavery, then they need to be sheltered from this information. Like the era before the Brown decision, the educations sytems are designed around the needs of white students.

“When you said they are blaming the victim, it kind of reminds me from years and years ago when there was so much turmoil in Boston and the Boston schools,” Hawkins said. “And out of that, William Ryan wrote the book ‘Blaming the Victim.’ It talked about how we use the victim as the scapegoat to blame and to try to take the onus off of ourselves and put it on others. Blaming the victim in this instance in this state and across the country is a way of controlling what is going on, whether we are talking about the community and organizations, controlling people according to what your agenda might be. And by using fear, you control people by blaming them and saying that the whole notion of DEI is divisive. When you are the person who really has the control or is in the position where they can exert control are the ones who are putting into place practices and policies that are divisive, that really pits people against each other instead of taking historical information moments and see how we can build upon those things, whether those things in history were painful, or hurtful.”

And the focus on education is important for the students coming up within the academic institutions.

“You can encourage young people to also look within themselves and the potential they have and take that next step even though they may be a little  fearful regardless to what the fear might be,” Hawkins said. “You can take that step. There were others who were your age at that particular time, high school students. They took that courage. They took that next step. So I think we can use it as a positive in helping all of our children, whether we are talking about students of color who may not necessarily see themselves in a light of having the potential to do many things and to be whatever their heart desires. But also those students who are not students of color, who also as all of us at one time have had some hesitancy to do things because they begin to doubt themselves. They fear taking that step. So I think we can take situations, things that have happened and really see the positive outcome of things.”

Once again since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the King Holiday celebration begins on Friday night.

“We are having a real community dinner,” Lee said. “As has been the case for many years up until COVID-19, the King Coalition’s observance of the MLK Holiday will kick off on Friday January 12th with a free community dinner at Gordon Commons just like always. It’s just a very informal evening of food and fellowship and connecting with people and breaking bread together. The Music Makers will be there again this year.”

Although there are other King Holiday events sponsored by other organizations, the King Coalition continues the celebration on Sunday evening with the Ecumenical Service, which underscores the importance that faith communities played in the Civil Rights Movement beginning with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The service serves as a reminder and a continuation of the work.

“It’s being held at the Fountain of Life Church at 4:30 p.m.,” Hawkins said I”t will be a wonderful time in which people from different faith backgrounds come together and talk about Dr. King, not only in terms of his work, but also how it impacted the society and what we are doing now within our community to see how we can use some of the principles of Dr. King in the faith communities across the county. The Martin Luther King Community Choir will perform. And there might be a praise dance team which will include young people as a part of that Ecumenical Service. I’m not sure of the particulars in terms of the group that will be involved in the praise dance, but I think that would give a nice flavor to the evening service and involve young people. It is critical that we involve young people.”

On Monday January 15th, the actual holiday — as well as Dr. King’s birthday — the King Coalition’s Day of Service for Youth will be happening at the Madison Public Library Downtown.

“The intent is to encourage the youth who participate to commit themselves to a year of service,” Lee said. “The workshops will focus a little bit on the history of the civil rights movement and Dr. King’s role in it as well as how community service and volunteerism intersects with that. It’s tough in Wisconsin to find places to serve in the middle of winter. The students will then march over to the Overture Center for the nighttime program. There is a registration form and they actually do have to be attending as part of a community, youth or church group so that they are chaperoned by some adults. But registration is ongoing right now. And the link to register is at our website at mlkingcoalition.org.

And then, the main event begins at 5 p.m. at the Overture Center with a Community Sing Along of classic civil rights music led by Tamara Stanley in the Overture Rotunda. And then at 6 p.m., the singing of the MLK Community Choir will beckon participants into the Capitol Theater for the main program.

“We are very pleased that the Monday evening program will start out with our master of ceremonies who is Professor Christy Clark Pujara who is a professor and chair of the UW-Madison Dept. of African American Studies,” Hawkins said. “She has been very involved in our community, not only within the academic community where she is making a real impact, but also within the larger Madison community. And of course, since we are focusing on education, we thought it was just really befitting for her or someone like her to be our master of ceremonies. And of course we will have music. The MLK Community Choir that is conducted by Leotha and Tamara Stanley. We will have the Call to Action and the Litany of Rededication, which also goes back to what we can do as members of this community to really move forward and make a positive impact on the community at large. And we cannot forget that the Mayor of Madison and the Dane County Executive will be giving the Martin Luther King Humanitarian Awards.”

Also surfacing after the pandemic is the Urban League of Greatger Madison’s Community Breakfast on Sunday, January 14th.

“The Urban League will be hosting its Youth Recognition Breakfast at Edgewood High School,” Lee said. “We’ll be recognizing over 200 outstanding middle and high school youth who are excelling academically., but also have to demonstrate service to their school and broader community. We will also be giving out the Betty Franklin-Hammonds Scholarships and some other scholarships and recognitions at that event. Kipp’s Catering will be preparing the breakfast. Tickets can be bough online at ulgm.org.”

With the combined efforts of the King Coalition, the Wisconsin King Tribute and Ceremony, Women in Focus, College Station and other organizations, the Madison/Dane County area not only puts up a worthy celebration of Dr. King’s life, but also breathes new energy into the Civil Rights Movement, which is needed now more than ever.