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“You Just Think About Doing.” Civil Rights Leader Joyce Ladner Recalls MLK at City County Observance


Civil Rights activist and author Joyce Ladner gave the keynote at the 35th Annual Madison and Dane County Martin Luther King Holiday Observance on Monday night inside Overture Center’s Capitol Theatre.

“When you’re living in the moment, especially a young person living in the moment, you don’t think of history. You just think about doing,” she said. 

Ladner shared memories of her first time witnessing Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in person. She remembered him as an engaging speaker and for her and many of her peers, a living breathing human being, not the mythical hero he has become.

“Dr. King used to come to our office in Harlem to meetings of the ‘Big Six’ as we called it, the leaders of the national Civil Rights movement,” she said.

Ladner also spoke about her experiences helping organize voter registration drives and the March on Washington. She said some people considered protesting for civil rights “antiwhite.” Ladner was even expelled from college for her activism.

“It seems the tougher times were, the more difficult our job was but we had to use tougher measures,” she said.

Ladner said Dr. King went beyond the scope beyond domestic issues such as speaking out against the Vietnam war. Ladner said activists should continue to speak up about the Civil Rights issues of today including immigration, climate change, police violence, and class warfare.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and City of Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway also introduced this year’s recipients of the combined City-County Humanitarian Awards, Kenneth R. Cole and Ada Deer. Cole, originally from Los Angeles, received the Emerging Leaders Award from the City of Madison for his activism, work towards youth development, and community organizing with the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, the Urban League of Greater Madison, Madison School & Community Recreation, and the Wisconsin Leadership Development Project.

Deer received the Humanitarian Award from Dane County for her work as a Native American advocate and scholar. She opposed the federal termination of tribes in the 1970s. Deer ran for Congress in 1992 and served as Assistant Secretary of Interior and head of the United States’ Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1993 to 1997.

“I didn’t start out in life trying to get awards. I did what I thought was right,” she said.

Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes gave the call to action Monday night. He said Dr. King inspired many leaders including himself. Barnes also spoke against a court ruling that would remove up to 209,000 people from the state’s voter rolls.

“We all know that dreaming is only part of what it takes to create equitable opportunity,” he said.