On Monday, Jan. 20, Lawrence hosted the 29th Fox Cities Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day Celebration in the chapel. Organizers titled the event “Restoring the Radical King” and keynote speaker Dr. Simon Balto, Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Iowa, delivered an address which outlined how in life MLK embodied a radical sensibility that seems to get overlooked by those who only know him by his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Before giving his address, Dr. Balto admitted that he felt pained after teaching a semester on Dr. King to have to condense that class down to one speech for the audience at the celebration. His lecture held a goldmine of historical details from MLK’s life that many may have never heard before.
Balto spoke on MLK’s 30% approval rating among polled Americans while he was alive and how a majority of those polled had a negative opinion of him. Balto noted how MLK’s provocative messaging, disruptive protests and stance against capitalism as an economic system helped make the reverend unpopular, especially among white people.
Balto pushed back on the perception of MLK as a cuddly pacifist by noting that MLK advocated for the use of “militant tactics” to get results from the government such as massive school boycotts, occupation of government buildings and occupation of highways.
Balto also dispelled the myth that MLK only cared about racial injustices by pointing to Dr. King’s campaigns on behalf of the poor. Balto reminded the audience that before he was murdered, Dr. King was about to protest in solidarity with garbage collectors who wanted safer working conditions and better pay.
Balto remarked that he fears that those who refuse to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, refused to stand in solidarity with Standing Rock, against deportation and border camps, against the war on terror and against Islamophobia, etc. may not have approved of MLK while he was alive.
Awards were given out on stage to recipients of the 2020 Jane LaChapelle McCarty MLK Community Leader Award and the MLK Educator award. Each recipient delivered an acceptance speech.
The event also honored the winners of the MLK essay contest, all four of whom were aged between 2nd and 11th grade. Three of the winners read their essays aloud and since the fourth could not attend, someone read their essay for them. Essayists encouraged listeners to follow in the spirit of MLK and speak up when they saw something wrong in their lives.
The celebration featured live music by Rev. Sekou and his band, Lawrence’s own freshman Kyree Allen and organist Bruce Benson. Rev. Sekou had the audience stand, clap and sing along at points in his performance.
Rev. Sekou was raised in Arkansas. Some may have seen him when he appeared on NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series.
There were also two video tributes dedicated to deceased members of the community: Mr. Ron Dunlap, a former teacher and activist and Mr. Henry Golde, a Holocaust survivor who spoke to many young people about his experiences in the Holocaust.