“As we focus on women this year, we must acknowledge that women have taken moments in this society and changed them and transformed them into a movement for change in the world,” said keynote speaker Rita Coburn. “As we touch our humanity, we can see our lives in ordinary women; we can see our power.”
Coburn delivered a powerful address at the 39th annual State of Wisconsin Tribute and Ceremony honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. held at the Capitol rotunda Jan. 21. The event, titled “Truth Is Marching,” honored women as pioneers, change makers and innovators in today’s world. The MLK Tribute and Ceremony is the oldest official MLK commemoration in the nation.
New Gov. Tony Evers was given a standing ovation before making brief opening remarks at the event. “This is the oldest official state ceremony in our nation’s history,” Evers said. “As governor, I’m pleased to join with you in remembering and celebrating the incredible life of Dr. King.”
Dr. Jonathan Overby once again produced, directed, and hosted the longest-running state celebration of Dr. King’s legacy and offered up his own opening remarks at the event.
“We, the people of Wisconsin, gather not only to celebrate the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in words and music, but to also contemplate and celebrate the pursuit of equality for all,” Overby told the crowd. “For nearly 40 years, the annual State of Wisconsin Tribute and Ceremony honoring Dr. King has drawn together thousands of people from across the state and the midwest with the desire to celebrate Dr. King and to celebrate each other and our unique differences as Wisconsinites and to also celebrate our commonalities.”
By design for the event, Overby continued, the program has a womanist framing.
“Represented by our dais that includes a diverse collection of women from various backgrounds in recognition of the historical role women have played as pioneers, activists during the civil rights movement, changemakers and innovators in every field in today’s world,” he said.
The celebration featured performances by the Victory Travelers Gospel Quartet, the MLK Women’s Mass Choir and James C. Wright Middle School “Dream Team.”
A Wisconsin 2019 MLK Heritage Award was presented to Patty Loew, a professor in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and director of NU’S Center for Native American and Indigenous Research.
“I’d like to think that if Dr. King was alive today, he would be warning us against environmental justice, too,” Loew, a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, told the crowd. “He would be concerned about the assaults on our earth, on our air, on our water. These resources are precious to my people. I’ve been gifted with the opportunities to tell their stories – the stories of these environmental stewards who envision a better life. These environmental stewards and our non-Indian allies who try to make wise decisions for the benefit of our children and our grandchildren and beyond to the seventh generation
“They persist not just for Native people, but for all people,” Loew added. “I accept this award in their honor.”
A Wisconsin 2019 MLK Heritage Award was also presented to Sandra Park, who was killed when gunshots were fired into her house near 13th and Hopkins St. in Milwaukee. Sandra, a student and award-winning writer at Keefe Ave. Middle School, was 13 when she was killed by a stray bullet while in her own home on a school night just before Thanksgiving. She was a 2016-2017 winner of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writing contest and the subject of her winning essay was gun violence and titled “Our Truth.”
Parks’s mother, Bernice, accepted the award on her behalf.
“It’s been a long journey. It’s very hard,” Bernice Parks said. “At the end of the day, Sandra’s a blessing. She was a blessing to me when I first got her, when God gave her to me. She’s going to continue to be a blessing upon all of us, in y’all thoughts, in y’all writing.”
Coburn, a Peabody and Emmy Award-Winning director, writer, and producer with nearly four decades in radio, television and film, was very powerful as a keynote speaker.
“Martin Luther King Jr. would call the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955, who was accused of whistling at a white woman, one of the most brutal and inhumane crimes of the 20th century,” Coburn says. “For most of his life, King would use the Till murder as an example of the evils of racial injustice. But it was Mamie Till, a grieving mother, who would open the casket calling worldwide attention to her son’s bloated, beaten face and an appalling vision of racial injustice.
“A mother’s grief primed a movement,” she added. “I am from Chicago and know that in 2019 African-American mothers all over this country are still grieving the wrongful deaths of their sons and daughters.”
Coburn added that as we build our tribe, awakened women and men must lift their voices across aisles and racial minds for these injustices to stop.
“Only our sincere acknowledgment of humanity can create an effective call to action,” she said. “Like Mamie Till’s wails for her son, we as the women – the mothers, the sisters of this time – must excavate our voices, sound a powerful battle cry, and march for truth.”