Monday, January 20, 2014

Day 253 - Attending a Martin Luther King Holiday Observance and Celebration

I have never attended Martin Luther King holiday observance and celebration. Given the man’s impact on the nation I call home, the fact I had never taken time to attend a celebration of Martin Luther King Junior’s life and legacy is a bit embarrassing. After all, the man’s work and sacrifice had the single greatest impact on the civil rights movement in the United States, and that deserves recognition from all self-respecting Americans, in my opinion. Given that perspective, I decided my “I have never...” year provided a perfect platform to gain my first experience with a Martin Luther King Junior holiday observance and celebration event. As a result, I set aside time this evening to attend the City of Madison’s Martin Luther King Junior Holiday Observance at the nearby Capitol Theatre and prepared for what I knew would be a moving event.

Entering the theatre

When I arrived at the theatre this evening I quickly found myself among a swirling crowd of smiling people streaming into various parts of the auditorium. I quickly found that the substantial crowd of people meant the only remaining seats for the event were in the theatre balcony. As a result, I climbed the theatre stairs toward the balcony in an effort to find the best possible seat I could as the beginning of the program neared. Eventually, my path took me to a location very near the center of the nearly full auditorium, where I promptly settled in and waited for the performance to begin. With recordings of Martin Luther King Junior speeches flowing from the theatre speakers around me, I looked over the crowd and thought about the idea and the man that brought all of us together. In that moment it became clear I had waited too long to fully celebrate Martin Luther King Junior Day, but I was glad I made time to do just that this evening.

The drum line
Several minutes later the lights dimmed and a sudden burst of sound came from balcony. To my left, a drum line had occupied a part of the theatre and brought the celebration to life with a driving beat. Following suit, the sound of live music began emanating from behind the stage curtain, which created an enveloping experience and filled the theatre with a vibrant, joyful spirit. As the drum line faded to a murmur the band played on until the stage curtains furled open to reveal a massive choir occupying a tiered surface on the back half of the performance area. On cue, the choir erupted into song, lifting the crowd with the beautiful melody of Oh, Freedom. It was apparent in those first moments the event would be something special.

MLK Humanitarian Award Winner Hazel Symonette
Now, I won’t spend a lot of time going over the details of the segments of the event that followed the impressive introduction to my first ever Martin Luther King holiday observance and celebration. I know my words wouldn’t do the event, and the message that came with it, any justice. Instead, I will simply say that I have never attended an event where reflection, celebration, and renewed commitment to making progress as people have been so powerfully and equally present at the same time. From the first speech about the presence of inequality in our community to the ceremonies honoring the annual Martin Luther King Junior Humanitarian Award winners, the theme of progress made and yet to be made stayed true. It was a celebration of those things that have been done and a point of recommitment to those things that have yet to be done to advance the legacy of Martin Luther King Junior in our society. 

Love train
As the event progressed, the gaps between speakers and presentations were met with more vibrant music rooted in the concept of unity and peace. That effort culminated with the introduction of the night’s keynote speaker, Andrew Young, who is a civil rights activist and leader, a former ambassador, and a former politician who was a close friend and colleague of Martin Luther King Junior. As he took the stage, the very presence of the man caused the crowd to rise to its feet in roaring applause. As an embodiment of King’s legacy, seeing Andrew Young was like looking into the face of history, and his words carried with them a unique and powerful message about the progress we’ve made and the work left to be done. Paying specific attention to the role of income inequality in the suppression and imbalance of rights across the world, Ambassador Young blended stories of his efforts and struggles during the Civil Rights Movement with the struggles ongoing in the world today. His tales of his time with Dr. Martin Luther King and the sacrifices they made in the name of equality and progress were touching, and they made me feel closer to the happenings of that era more than any other point in my life. It was a riveting experience; one that I will not forget for the rest of my days.

Activist, Politician, and Diplomat Andrew Young

At the conclusion of Ambassador Young’s speech, he called for all people in attendance to keep fighting for justice and equality in our world. “There is work to be done,” he said emphatically, “and it is up to every one of us to do it.” The words resonated through the auditorium and stirred the silent crowd into a standing ovation. In response, the choir moved into song once more and tied into the closing remarks from the event’s host. As the music consumed the space around us, the crowd joined in the singing as we clapped our hands to the beat. It was clear everyone in attendance was moved by Andrew Young’s call to action, which evoked a response of celebration for the progress made and the progress we all hoped to make in the weeks, months, and years to come. It was a moment I could have stayed in all night, which left me standing a listening to the choir as the seats around me emptied. Somewhat reluctantly, I ultimately decided to follow suit, and I found my way out of the theatre to start my trip home.

We Shall Overcome

As I settled in for the evening I looked back on my experience with my first Martin Luther King holiday observance and celebration and thought about the message it carried. The presentation and the speech from Ambassador Young were a stark reminder there are much better men than me in this world, but it made me realize the actions of every person count. In some ways, it made me realize the actions of one person can truly change the world, and when that change makes us a better, more unified people it is something to reach for. I don’t know if, when, or even how I will be able to affect the world around me, but events like tonight’s celebration make it clear I should never stop trying to be a better person, for myself and for the people around me. It is a heavy task to carry forward Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, but my first experience at an event celebrating his life and work made it clear everyone, myself included, can help make the load a little lighter. That insight made today incredibly impacting, and it is a thought that can guide me through the rest of my effort to find out who I am. There is work to be done; both within and in the world around me.

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