January 16th marked the 38th annual Madison and Dane County King Holiday Observance. The celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began with the singing of freedom songs and spirituals led by Tamera Stanley. The singing continued in the theater as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Choir took the stage.
The Black National Anthem was followed by words on unity and King’s legacy from Alan Edward Klugman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Madison. Afterward, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway presented Dr. Charles Taylor with a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award. Taylor’s continued push for supporting Black economic growth in Madison reflects principles he has identified amongst the Black Madison community.
“My documentary, ‘Leaders of Madison’s Black Renaissance,’ confirmed that there’s something special about Madison,” said Taylor while accepting the award. He then addressed keynote speaker Donzaleigh Abernathy, daughter of civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy and the goddaughter of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Mrs. Abernathy, I’m sure Dr. King and your father would be very proud that Dr. King has admirers working all over the city and Dane County, providing healthcare, jobs, education, and hope,” Taylor said. “Their passion and service taught me much about this community that we love. Despite our challenges, Madison is still a great place for victory…My generation was taught that despite racial barriers and our own personal flaws, we could be successful, and when you combine faith with action, great things are still possible.”
Another Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award was awarded to the late Wayne Strong, a pillar in the Black community on Madison’s south side. Terri Strong, the wife of Wayne Strong, was at the celebration to accept the award on her husband’s behalf. Terri Strong gave a moving speech touching on the multiple ways that her husband lived a life reflecting the legacy of Dr. King.
“Wayne Strong devoted his life both personally and professionally to the betterment of his community,” Terri Strong shared while accepting the award. “Particularly to those impacted by systematic inequities. He was a member of countless associations and community neighborhood groups…Wayne dedicated his life to this community, he loved Madison and Dane County. He recognized the potential that this village has. All the work that he did, he didn’t do it for any glory, not even for this kind of recognition while we are here tonight. It was his passion and his given purpose to challenge the status quo, to ask the tough questions, and to lift up the next person and really love somebody else as he paved the way for those who will come behind him.”
The legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Madison was even more tangible in the room as keynote speaker Donzaleigh Abernathy took the stage. Abernathy shared captivating stories of growing up during times of both great struggle and great success. Stories such as how the two historic civil rights leaders met gave insight into how intricately events unfolded as they navigated the fight for freedom.
“They met because my dad was in Atlanta University, getting his master’s degree from the GI Bill. He was a soldier in World War II. Reverend Martin was at Morehouse College, so Grandaddy King came over to my dad and a group of young ministers over at ITC, which was the School of Theology. He said, ‘Listen, I want all you young ministers to come hear my son preach his first sermon ever,’” recalled Abernathy.
“So they went to Ebenezer, where Uncle Martin preached that first sermon, and he did a tremendous job. At the end of it, he stood at the doorway at the back of the church, so my dad walked by and they shook hands. Electricity must have happened between them, and they liked each other. Then they went their separate ways.”
Donzaleigh Abernathy continued on to recount how her father and King reunited and how they spent an unimaginable amount of time together, and how close the two families were. Personal recollections of historic events, people, and places were accompanied by pictures that traced a path of the long and difficult journey of the Civil Rights Movement. Abernathy made it clear in her message that love for all and learning how to communicate with and uplift one another were the legacies that both Dr. King and her father meant to leave for the world.
“You never know what life is gonna take,” Abernathy said in closing remarks. “You never know who’s gonna be there…My dad used to say we hate each other because we fear each other. We fear each other because we don’t know each other. We don’t know each other because we won’t sit down together. Let us sit down at the table today. God bless you.”
The night ended with the musical selection “We Shall Overcome,” and the resounding message of the night was rooted in love. The love that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed in his lifetime in his continued participation in the struggle for freedom, and the love that continues to grow and be fostered in future generations and we reflect on the legacy he left behind.