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“Let Justice Rule”: 42nd annual State of Wisconsin Tribute and Ceremony honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


“On this MLK Day, it is important to serve, yet we must go deeper than a day of service. Dr. King said, ‘One of the great tragedies of life is that men seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying,'” said Dr. Laurie Carter, the keynote speaker at the 42nd annual State of Wisconsin Tribute and Ceremony honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. held at the state Capitol rotunda on Monday, Jan. 16. “A persistent schizophrenia leaves so many of us tragically divided against ourselves. On the one hand, we proudly profess certain sublime and noble principles, but on the other hand, we sadly practice the very antithesis of these principles. How often are our lives characterized by a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds?”

Dr. Carter, the first Black president of Lawrence University, spoke extensively about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and about justice to coincide with the event’s theme of “Let Justice Rule.”    

Dr. Laurie Carter

Produced and directed by Wisconsin Public Radio’s Dr. Jonathan Øverby, the 42nd annual Tribute and Ceremony is the official state ceremony and the oldest official MLK Day state celebration in the United States. 

“We the people of Wisconsin gather not only to celebrate [Dr. King’s] birthday in words and music, but also to affirm our collective and individual commitment to justice, not for just some … but for all. For over 40 years, the annual state of Wisconsin Tribute and Ceremony has brought us to this very place to reflect on his dream,” Øverby told the crowd to open the event. “On this day, we can reconnect with the full breadth of justice as more than just a matter signed to law or a single holiday ….  but is in the spirit of good community a chance to demonstrate our dedication to caring about and serving each other as a way of life.”

Prior to becoming president of Lawrence University in the summer of 2021, keynote speaker Carter was president of Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. Her professional career also includes 25 years in key leadership positions at The Juilliard School in New York City and four years at Eastern Kentucky University.

“When Dr. Øverby called to invite me to address you, I was immediately transported back to my time at the Juilliard School where for 25 years, I had the privilege of producing the annual celebration of the life and work of Dr. King,” Carter said. “I was blessed to work with actors like Viola Davis, Danielle Brooks, and Anthony Mackie. Dancers like Robert Battle, the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company, and musicians like Jonathan Batista.

The State of Wisconsin’s 42nd annual Tribute and Ceremony to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
(Photo by David Dahmer)

“I was reminded that in the months leading up to that annual production, every year I spend time with students reading excerpts from ‘A Testament of Hope,’ and talking about the life and work of Dr. King,” she continued, referring to the comprehensive single-volume edition of the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “It was important to me that this was not just another Juilliard performance. It was vital that we captured the spirit of sacrifice, perseverance, and love of Dr. King’s work and the question: What is justice without love?”

Carter mentioned that Dr. King has said, “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”


The Brown Sisters of Chicago perform at the 42nd annual State of Wisconsin Tribute and Ceremony.

She further quoted him again, saying, “We make our fervent pleas for the high road of justice, and then we tread unflinchingly the low road of injustice. This strange dichotomy, this agonizing gulf between the ought and the is, represents the tragic theme of man’s earthly pilgrimage.”

Carola Gaines is honored with a 2023 State of Wisconsin MLK Heritage Award. (Photo: Sabrina Madison

“Each of us has an earthly pilgrimage that can change the course of the world,” Carter said. “Are you living a life of practice and doing or have you fallen prey to an anemia of deeds? We owe it to ourselves and to the legacy that Dr. King left to challenge ourselves to do better. His life and my own journey are proof that this is not an easy road. Nor is it a comfortable one. Yet it is exactly what we must do if we truly believe in justice.”

The 42nd annual State of Wisconsin Tribute and Ceremony honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. included a welcome by Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and performances by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra conducted by Andrew Sewell, the Foundation of Life Praise Band, Prince Hall Masonic Honor Guard, Kalaanjali Dance Company and The Brown Sisters of Chicago.

Carola Gaines and Pardeep Singh Kaleka were honored with 2023 State of Wisconsin MLK Heritage Awards.

“Dr. Øverby, today we stand on your shoulders of service,” Gaines said. “I pray the community is pleased with my years of service. I feel my purpose on earth is to be a servant-leader and I try every day to persevere and to be dedicated, passionate, and to uplift our people and committed to being a part of transformational change as Dr. King was.”

Deon Johnson, Jr., a fourth-grader at Lincoln Elementary School, gave a powerful rendition of MLK’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963.

Deon Johnson, Jr. gives a powerful rendition of MLK’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Carter closed her speech by asking the greater Madison community to “reflect on the sacrifice, suffering and struggle of Dr. King’s life and work.”

“Take with you my wish for us today and every day: Dr. King said it best when he said. ‘True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.’ I wish you a life of peace and justice.”