By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is always a busy day in Milwaukee. For many, it is a day of reflection and celebration, a time to look back on what has been achieved, while acknowledging the work that still needs to be done.
This year’s celebration included the renaming the remainder of North Old World Third Street to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, a health fair, a panel on justice as it pertains to food, the environment and race, various virtual programs and more.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Justice Coalition of Milwaukee celebrated its 21st annual MLK Day Justice Commemoration at the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, Jan. 17. The group continued the celebration later that day with its virtual program “Uniting Against Racism. Where Do We Go From Here?”
During the event, leaders from the coalition, the Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression, the community and more, reflected on what it means to carry on King’s legacy.
Pastor Greg Lewis of Souls to the Polls shared the story that steered him toward a life of advocacy. Growing up, Lewis would often frequent the house of John Outlaw, a teacher at Milwaukee Public Schools. Outlaw lived next door to Clifford McKissick, a young Black man who was shot and killed by police in 1967.
In the event surrounding McKissick’s death, Outlaw got glass in his eye, but law enforcement refused to let him go to the hospital. It was then that Lewis realized Black people really were treated differently and something needed to be done.
A year later when King was assassinated, Lewis made his way to St. Boniface Catholic Church on North 11th Street to join the march.
Decades later Lewis was comparing King’s efforts to those of today in terms of voting rights.
“I saw that Dr. King was very adamant about people expressing themselves that way,” he said. “What disheartens me now is that we still having that fight right now. After all these years of fighting to get a vote, we still have people trying to make sure we don’t.”
Lewis continued, “We still have people saying things like ‘Our vote doesn’t count.’ And I’m still asking them the question, ‘If you’re vote didn’t count, why are so many people trying to keep you from voting?’ That just doesn’t make sense.”
Today isn’t just about celebrating King, he said, but remembering to keep his work alive by continuing to strive forward.
“No matter what, you can’t stop. You can’t give up. You can’t give in,” Lewis said. “You have to make sure that you do everything you possibly can to ensure that we have a voice in this city.”
Get people registered to vote, because that’s how people who look out for the community’s interests get put into office, he said.
George Martin, a longtime peace activist and member of the coalition, remarked that too much of America is still dreaming. It’s time for change, he said.
“We all need to get connected,” he said. “One little axe can’t chop down that big old tree, but thousands of us can. In the values of Dr. King, I’m talking about nonviolence as the way to do things.”
Andre Lee Ellis, a Milwaukee-based actor and activist, performed a rendition of King’s “I Have A Dream Speech.”
“I look to the day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” Ellis recited. “We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or perish together as fools.”
Sen. Lena Taylor also spoke during the event.
She noted that some people may use MLK Day as a day off, but she hopes they use it as a day to do something.
“What I want us to do today is make sure that we do something, some action,” she said. “In the name of Jeannetta Robinson let’s show some love and action today. In the name of Dr. King let’s show some love and action.”
These efforts need to go beyond MLK Day, she said.
“Our democracy in my opinion is in jeopardy,” she said. “Let us use our voices, let us use our feet, let us use our hands to move our community in the direction that we want to see it move, in the way that Dr. King would. Let his legacy, let his dream not be in vain.”
In addition to the speakers, the group sang traditional civil rights songs including “We Shall Overcome” and honored the elders present such as Fred Reed, an original member of the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council Commandos.
Jarrett English, a volunteer with the coalition and the event’s MC concluded the event.
“That’s what the fight is about you all: justice everywhere” English said. “We can’t stop fighting. We know that it’s hard to do that when you’re just a ‘regular person.’ There’s nothing regular about you, but that’s the tactics of the opposition to keep you from making your community succeed where it needs to be. The only way to overcome that is community with a capitol C.”