Approximately 400 people gathered at the St. Francis of Assisi Church on 4th Street in Milwaukee to commemorate the struggles and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. This was the 15th year for the MLK Justice Program and March that included a commemorative service, a march to a nearby statue of King, and an open mic for participants to reflect on how Dr. King affected their lives and how they were continuing today to carry on King's legacy.
The organizers of the event included MLK Justice Coalition, The Coalition for Justice (a group organized in support of retaining justice for Dontre Hamilton, a young Black man killed by police in Milwaukee last April), Peace Action Wisconsin, Veterans for Peace, Progressive Democrats of WI, Greater Milwaukee Green Party, and Voces de la Frontera among others.
Many dignitaries were welcomed including the widow of Father Groppi, who participated in the famous 1963 March on Washington and fought for fair housing and other rights in Milwaukee. Father Michael Bertram began the service by saying,
We must sit here today and ask ourselves, what are we doing to further the message not just of Dr. King, but the message of Jesus Christ that speaks of freedom, that speaks of justice, that speaks of peace, that speaks of love, that speaks of dignity for every single human being without exception.
George Paz Martin, an activist, educator and trainer in Milwaukee and member of the Green Party, told the audience he was only 16 when he stood just ten feet away from Dr. King when he delivered his famous I Have A Dream speech, and that was a pivotal point in Martin's life.
During a narration of the events and turmoils King faced in his last year of life, a group of parishioners and leaders recited excerpts from Death of a King, by Tavis Smiley, along with excerpts of King's speech, delivered in 1967, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. King was warned not to deliver this speech, but he felt the need to speak
...to my fellow Americans who, with me, bear the greatest responsibility in ending a conflict that has exacted a heavy price on both continents.
King gave seven reasons for speaking out about Vietnam. In his speech, he eloquently explained one of those reasons saying,
The war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions . . .We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
The narrators led the audience through the final months of King's life covering the time he spent in Memphis, Tennessee during the city's sanitation workers' strike where he prophetically spoke the night before he died saying,
I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.
Exactly one year after his delivery of the Beyond Vietnam speech, King was assassinated April 4, 1968 in Memphis.
George Paz Martin introduced the family of Dontre Hamilton. He read off names of all the Black men who have died at the hands of police officers in Milwaukee. As each name was read, the audience was asked to stand, raise his/her right hand and repeat “presente” to symbolize that these men were also “in attendance” and remembered. Mr. Martin reminded everyone we seek fairness and justice, not persecution of all police officers as he spoke,
There are many good police officers in this city, but there are some bad apples. . .Today we want to remember the victims of police violence in this city over the years.
Maria Hamilton, mother of Dontre, was honored and spoke during the service. She asked for support of Mothers for Justice United, created by Mrs. Hamilton, which has provided support for the mothers of those who have lost children to violence not just in Milwaukee, but around the country. Mothers for Justice United is planning to march in Washington to the Department of Justice on this year's Mother's Day, May 9, in protest of police brutality and racial injustice. Fundraising activities are taking place to help defray costs for those interested in attending.
Before ending the service, everyone held hands as they sang We Shall Overcome. People then gathered outside the church. Many carried flags of organizations and other countries and the U.S. flag as they made their way to the Martin Luther King statue on MLK Drive.
To commemorate King's January 15 birthday along with what would have been Dontre Hamilton's 32nd birthday on January 20, marchers sang Happy Birthday as they made their way peacefully to the statue. Flowers were placed at the base of the King statue. People gathered around to speak passionately about how Dr. King affected their lives. Many spoke of police brutality, horrors of abuse in their communities, the need for rebuilding public schools and influencing government by electing those with ideas to end poverty and make King's dreams a reality in the 21st century.
One speaker asked the audience to be on the lookout for the next Martin Luther King. She compared Reverend Edward Pinkney, who has been fighting police brutality, gentrification, and corporate fascism in Benton Harbor, Michigan for over a decade, to Dr. King. George Paz Martin added that Rev. Pinkney has been a personal friend for 10 years and he asked the audience to give their prayers and support as this is a huge injustice for this man to be in prison.Other speakers covered issues ranging from violence against women and children to advocating for fair immigration policies that would keep families together. Some had personal stories about unfair treatment of schoolchildren and poor, single mothers. Some spoke about unity and being today’s new civil rights leaders and about the history of our country’s racial injustices. Those in the audience expressed their agreement and many passing drivers honked their horns in support.