Nearly 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of a quarter of a million people to give his I Have a Dream speech, a statement that would become a highlight of the American civil rights movement for decades.
Roughly five years later in 1968, King was shot and killed on his hotel room balcony in Memphis, Tenn. In 2013, the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh community will come together for the 18th year to celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
King’s leading voice for the civil rights movement will be commemorated on Jan. 21 in the Reeve Memorial Union Ballroom 227 on the UW Oshkosh campus. The dinner and program will take place from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh will be closed during normal hours on Monday, Jan. 21, in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Celebration has become a UW Oshkosh tradition that brings the community together in remembrance of King and commitment to fulfilling all he stood for.
“The event provides an opportunity to spend a few minutes out of our very busy lives to reflect on higher human values and principles,” said Pamela Lassiter, director of Equity and Affirmative Action at UW Oshkosh and coordinator of the Jan. 21 community Celebration. “When one considers the work of MLK, a few consistent messages emerge: supporting our communities, supporting the lesser among us, asking hard questions and being prepared to do the hard work.”
Lassiter said she is also proud of the way the University and the public have come together over the years and, through the Celebration, increased the spotlight on local schools’ efforts to integrate King’s mission into their K-12 communities. Student essay contest winners are annually awarded for their contributions, as are teachers helping daily advance King’s vision in their classrooms. Community nonprofits, too, will be recognized for their commitment to demonstrating King’s values and continuing his work toward a more just and equitable society.
Patricia Schrader from the UW Oshkosh Office of Equity and Affirmative Action, who helped organize the event this year, said the celebration is a display of respect for King’s life.
“It is important that we recognize and honor a man who gave his life so that we could come together collectively for one night, regardless of the color of our skin, and celebrate how his dream is still alive and how the community has worked to continue his legacy,” Schrader said.
The program honors organizations in the community that have displayed a commitment to preserving King’s ideology. This year the event will recognize Reach Counseling Services, The Salvation Army, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Family Services of Northeast Wisconsin Inc. and the Oshkosh Area United Way.
A group of students from the Oshkosh Area School District, who participated in an essay contest on King, will also be recognized and awarded with the Martin Luther King Jr. Award.
Sociology and Environmental Studies professor Paul Van Auken said it is important for the community to come together in celebration of King’s life and work in order to continue to improve upon social justice issues in the Oshkosh community, which is growing in diversity.
“Both UWO and wider Oshkosh community are becoming increasingly diverse and will continue to…,” Van Auken said. “We are clearly experiencing growing pains in this regard and have a ways to go before we can say that people of color are well integrated and that our communities are truly committed to producing equity for all people.”
Van Auken facilitated a student panel discussion in 2011 titled Diversity at UWO. He said inclusive events that bring a “wider spectrum of our campus and Oshkosh community together every year” is a good place to start.
Immediately following the community celebration at UW Oshkosh, First Presbyterian Church, 110 Church Ave. in Oshkosh, will host speaker Rev. Joe Ellwanger. Ellwanger was one of few white southern ministers actively involved in the civil rights movement, working closely with King to plan demonstrations in Birmingham and leading a group of 72 white Alabamans in a march to support voting rights. The event represents a partnership between UW Oshkosh and other community organizations working for the furtherance of King’s mission.
UW Oshkosh played its own role in the civil rights movement when on Nov. 21, 1968, a total of 94 black students attending the University organized a demonstration in the University president’s executive office to provide President Guiles with a list of demands. The demonstration resulted in a spree of vandalism and the students willingly allowed themselves to be escorted out of Dempsey Hall when riot police arrived, later being expelled from the University. The Advance-Titan, the UW Oshkosh student newspaper, later named the events “Black Thursday.” The demonstration sparked a series of protests from black and white students alike across multiple Wisconsin universities
In 2008, UW Oshkosh history professor Stephen Kercher led a team to create an exhibit remembering the Black Thursday events, featuring personal stories from Oshkosh students involved in the demonstration. The event was further remembered when in 2011 a historical marker was placed in Dempsey Hall outside the former office where the protest took place, listing the names of the 94 Oshkosh students who demanded fair treatment despite the color of their skin.
Director of the Center for Academic Support and Diversity Irma Burgos said the annual remembrance of King’s life and work provides a chance for the community to celebrate the achievements already made and recognize the future changes that will further bring King’s ideas to life.
“It provides us an opportunity to think about the major strides UW Oshkosh and surrounding communities have made overtime in welcoming diversity in its many forms,” Burgos said. “This event champions what I perceive to be a… venture bringing people together, acknowledging that we have more similarities than differences, thus celebrating the rich diversity of our community.”