GREEN BAY – Roeman Hamer stepped up to the podium at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, a red backdrop silhouetting a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr., and began to belt the hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song that has become a soundtrack to a movement.
The song originated in Jacksonville, Florida, where a chorus of young Black men sang it in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. The song has rippled as a liberating anthem, spreading across the nation and across generations, remaining solemn in its relevance, exquisite in its hope.
Over 120 years later, the Brown County MLK Celebration Committee kicked off its 27th annual event to the acapella rendition, with some members of the audience joining in.
The event, presented via Facebook Live and emceed by Corey King, vice chancellor for University Inclusivity & Student Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, and Barbara Koldos, vice president of business development at New North, included Indigenous land acknowledgments, two performances by the Washington Fine Arts Choir, an announcement of winners for the poster and creative writing awards inspired by this year’s theme, “The People’s March Continues,” a community award for the teacher with the most student nominations and a surprise award for one star member of the Brown County MLK Celebration Committee, Ebiere “Juliet” Cole.
The People’s March, the commonly used name of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, took place on Aug. 28, 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. recited his monumental speech, “I Have a Dream.” The historic event galvanized the nation and led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The speech, in 1963, pulsed with the grievances of a century following Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, a decree that hadn’t yet delivered true liberation to Black Americans.
And hearing the speech, orated in three parts throughout the ceremony by Hamer, participants were keen to remind the audience that the racial injustices of the past have continued with renewed insidiousness.
Jeff Rafn, president of NWTC, upon hearing the first portion of MLK’s speech delivered by Hamer, said he “didn’t feel much like celebrating.” Where MLK repeated phrases like “100 years later” and “I have a dream,” Rafn’s refrain of “Don’t tell me” captured a different tone.
“That speech (MLK) refers to 100 years ago lists the various things that still existed 100 years (after the Proclamation). And I tell you that 150 years later, we could say the same thing. And I don’t want to celebrate that,” Rafn said.
While Rafn reminded the audience of environmental racism, mass incarceration, a deadly pandemic that lays bare stark health disparities, and housing segregation endured by Black, Indigenous, Latino and Hispanic people and other communities of color, hope of making Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream a reality permeated the event. The commemoration came two days before the federally recognized holiday honoring King on Monday.
Mohammed Bey, co-chair of the Brown County MLK Celebration Committee, said that words like “racism” and “white supremacy” repel people from having frank conversations about race, but unity still must happen, even if the conversations inspire discomfort.
“But I want to bring you into the conversation,” Bey said. “We need to work on this together. I’m a man of faith and I do believe we shall overcome someday. All of you can be a part of this conversation. We all have a responsibility to better our environment for the next person.”
Winners, young and old, beam
Children and young adults from across Brown County were invited to write poems, essays and create posters that demonstrated the resilience of the People’s March in today’s racial landscape.
Jolanda Sallmann, associate professor of social work at UWGB, who was part of the selection process of the honorable mentions and winners, said that a rubric was applied to all submissions that assessed criteria such as relationship to theme, originality of idea and creativity.
“This year’s entry explored themes of race-based violence, immigration policies, exclusion, change and hope,” Sallmann said. “These phenomenal youth identified continued disparities and discriminations, and voiced their willingness to take personal responsibility to challenge racism and other forms of oppression and work to promote equity and inclusion in our communities.”
First-place winners received a touchscreen Chromebook, a statue of Martin Luther King Jr., a certificate, a laser-signed Green Bay Packers football and two tickets to view their artwork at the Neville Museum, which will be up from Jan. 29 through March 6.
In addition to the prizes for students, Victor Rodarte, a teacher at Howe Elementary School, received a community award for the most students to participate in the K-12 contest.
The final award for the day was a surprise for committee member Cole, who believed she was helping assist in the mystery prize. Instead, she stood cupping her hands to her heart as a new award for the 2022 Brown County MLK Celebration was presented to her for distinguished work in building inclusivity and unity within the community.
Ingrid Parker Hill, another committee member, presented the award.
“This person views Brown County as her adopted village and proudly invests in the well being of the Green Bay area and the people, and she treats each person respectfully and gets to know them individually,” Hill said. “She nurtures the community with her independent thought, diverse perspective and passion for social justice. This living legend has embraced the roles that have been given freely and others that have been thrust upon her.”
After the event, King and Koldos told the Green Bay Press-Gazette that they were thrilled with how the event went, but that they had the easy job.
They emphasized that community is the most important way to stand in opposition of bias and racism. The award given to Cole would continue every year, and the committee soon will start accepting nominations for next year’s awardee.
“There are several more Dr. Kings out there on the national stage, but we need to start looking at the local stage,” King told the Press-Gazette.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: In Green Bay 27th annual Brown County MLK celebration held at NWTC