The 43rd Annual State of Wisconsin King Tribute and Ceremony: One Day

Jonathan Overby

While Dr. Jonathan Øverby only sang in the first State King Holiday Tribute 43 years ago, he has produced and emceed the event ever since.

It’s amazing how progressive Wisconsin can be. While the King Holiday became an official federal holiday in 1986 after President Reagan signed the law in 1983, the State of Wisconsin gotr a head start when it held its first King Tribute & Ceremony in 1980, the first in the nation to do so.

“It’s the 43rd annual tribute ceremony honoring Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr.,” said Dr. Jonathan Øverby, the producer of the state tribute. “I’ve been a part of all of them. I sang for the first one. We’re looking at 1980. Dr. Anthony Brown, my cousin, and other civic leaders were instrumental in putting on the first one. And when I learned that it wasn’t going to happen the next year, I took it upon myself, as they say, to gather some people to do it the second year and then the third year. And here we are, the 43rd annual coming up.”

The event held at noon on the Monday Holiday, coming early this year and landing on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, is the official Wisconsin King Holiday Tribute & Ceremony held in the State Capitol Rotunda. It is a true state celebration. It’s broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio and PBS-Wisconsin. And it is designed to include everyone.

“The state tribute is one in which the entire Badgerland commemorates the legacy of Dr. King: the things that he lived for and believed in, he spoke about and ultimately died for. And that was seeing the United States of America become a country where it wasn’t just for some to achieve their dreams, but for all to achieve them. And he — not by himself — and others forged ahead to move us closer to that realization of unity and respect for each other.

It is the most culturally-inclusive, diverse gathering of people from all parts of Wisconsin, more so than any other time in the State of Wisconsin in the Capitol itself. That is something that we should all smile about, feel good about and want to be a part of.”

It is no small feat to lead a large production for 42 years and yet Øverby continues leading the effort with energy, commitment and enthusiasm.

“I used to do it because it was necessary to keep Dr. King’s memory alive,” Øverby said. “I do it now because it is important that we not react to, but respond to the level of hatred that we have seen over the last 10-12 years designed intentionally to divide us and to create at least two separate Americas. And that is very troubling. And we should all be concerned and do our best to positively respond to by eradicating where we can indifference and in a healthy way to struggle to treat each other in a way that is edifying of the service and legacy of Dr. King and so many others who gave their lives to make this a better place from opportunity for housing, jobs and education to access to healthcare. There are a lot of opportunity and it is opportunity that should be for all and not just those who have the financial means to have access to those things.”

The beauty of the state King Tribute is its longevity over the past four decades. In a way, it provides us with a Sankofa moment where we can see where we have come from, know where we are now and have concrete direction for the future. The theme of the event is “One Day,” which reminds us that we have made progress, but we are not yet at King’s Beloved Community. But it also leaves us with optimism. “One Day” we shall reach the promised land.

“I think people in marginalized groups in some aspects have been able to travel down the road to success,” Øverby said. “Unfortunately, there are far too many people still in various communities around the State of Wisconsin who have yet to even have a dream to aspire to realize. And we need to come to terms with that. The divide between the haves and the have nots is increasing. And we become polarized when it comes to how we see each other, different groups who come from different ethnic backgrounds or come from different parts of the world. We have increased the level of fear, hatred and anxiety about people who are different because of the way that they dress, how they eat or their language. And this fear, unfortunately, is a real symptom of a greater disease. And that disease is often rooted in racism.”

And the beginning of the road to the promised land begins with us.

“It’s about turning our personal lives in the direction of being hospitable and welcoming as a first step to those who live differently than we do,” Øverby said. “And even if we don’t live in a really diverse place in the State of Wisconsin, we can use whatever means we have to engage others who are different because it helps to make our community better and the community that we are reaching into to build bridges of inclusion, diversity and greater understanding.”

From the moment that Øverby steps out on the stage at 12 noon sharp, there is an excitement and and an aura of positivity as Øverby traditionally opens with a traditional gospel song. And the energy lasts until the last performance is given.

“The state tribute is filled with hope, but with an asterisk,” Øverby said. “It’s filled with hope that with work, some of the things that he aspired to achieve for African Americans as well as all Americans — those who live in rural areas and those who are marginalized just because they are a new immigrant or come from a place where opportunities were limited. The hope is in part what fuels people getting to a better place economically for themselves. But it also means that they aren’t just thinking about themselves, but also the broader community. And once you make it in life, in many ways, you are obligated, I believe, have a responsibility and onus to help someone else along that pathway to achieve what you have achieved. And that, I think, is a powerful message. It’s beyond, ‘It takes a whole village.’ It takes an entire state to build the kind of foundation that people want to come here and live here because they see this as a place that is hospitable and provides opportunities for people who have little or nothing, but who can get a healthy start to achieve the American Dream and contribute. Often people look at the King Holiday as a day of service. Sometimes it can be a day of just personal reflection on how one who is retired, has specific skills and education can still give of their time to help young children who are struggling to read or are having a challenge with math or play and instrument that someone who has a lot of experience as a musician can give their time to the community to help build it up. By the way, the arts are a powerful way to do that. It’s a powerful way to understand other cultures when you look at the kinds of things that they do artistically. You can get a sense of the values that they have within their own community.”

As Øverby said before, the event is intentionally multicultural speaking to the fact that Kinmg’s Dream impacted everyone in the nation and around the world.

“Dr. King’s birthday and what he represented transcends just the African American experience,” Øverby said. “He is quoted by people near and far, from different cross sections of life. And his message speaks to many communities. Part of celebrating Dr. King, for me, includes as its producer is to have the event look like the citizens who live here in Wisconsin. This year, we have the Chicago Gospel Choir coming. We have the Latino Arts Mariachi Juvenil from Milwaukee plus other surprise elements at the event that we think are worthy of celebrating the full spirit of the united aspect of this country. The Chicago Mass Public Choir should take us to the mountaintop, so I am excited about that. I think it was 2013 when we had them here. And we have Frank Montano who is an Indigenous flute player. He’s going to come down from Northern Wisconsin, the Menominee Nation, to be a part of the event.”

And in between the singing and the performances comes the main event for the production.

“We’ll be distributing the MLK Heritage Awards this year,” Øverby said. “And we will announce those at the event. I think people will be pleased by the nominations that we received. And we will share those on Monday. This year, our keynote is the Rev. Dr. Marcus Allen from Mt. Zion Baptist Church. We rarely have anyone local. This may be the second time in all of these years, over four decades. But we strongly believe in his service and dedication to the community. It will be great to have him be a part of the event.”

Øverby vows to keep producing the event or being involved in some way until he gets ti9red. “There’s no such thing as retire. There is no ‘re’,” he said.

While the State Tribute will be broadcast live on radio and television, there is no substitute for experiencing the real thing with the camaraderie and fellowship of those who have gathered to commemorate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to keep that legacy relevant and real. As Rev. Jesse Jackson would always say, ‘Keep Hope Alive.”