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Fox Cities MLK celebration challenges, inspires

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At a time of resolutions, many on Monday paused to listen, learn and refresh their energy for the continued push toward equality and social justice.

Residents gathered at the Lawrence Memorial Chapel on Monday for the Fox Cities’ 29th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Celebration.

It was a time to honor those putting King’s legacy to work in the Fox Cities. But it was also a reminder that the work is far from complete.

Dr. Simon Balto, assistant professor of history and African American studies at the University of Iowa, offered the keynote and acknowledged his address wasn’t going to be typical for community events of its type.

“This is not going to be an exercise in back patting,” he said. 

He quoted a peer who referred to the contemporary thoughts of King, whose image was softened over time, as an “innocuous black Santa Claus” — “a lovable man with a Kumbaya dream of a colorless society.”

In reality, “Martin Luther King was a radical,” he said.

Monday’s celebration included awards, youth essays and video tributes to the late Ron Dunlap and Henry Golde, local leaders who touched the lives of thousands. 

The Rev. Osagyefo Sekou provided a powerful, sonic backbone to the program at its midpoint and closed it with “We Shall Overcome.” 

Sekou was introduced to Appleton on Mile of Music’s opening night, and on Monday, invited the voices of all gathered into his message.

“We want freedom and we want it now,” filled the chapel.

Balto reminded those gathered of the King whose fight against racism extended to poverty and warfare after the fall of Jim Crow.

“His new vision impacted the whole of this nation,” he said.

He spoke of King’s opposition to Vietnam, his challenges to capitalism and push for socialist programs to raise people out of poverty.

In examining King, he asked those gathered to examine themselves.

He urged the audience to reflect, re-calibrate their politics and get them right if they’re wrong.

He asked at the front end of the presentation for a show of hands of those who viewed King with admiration. 

Most every hand went up.

He noted that in 1966, a Gallup poll found just 32 percent held a positive view of the leader.

In concluding, he noted that if you were unable to stand with Black Lives Matter, unable to support Occupy Wall Street or are indifferent to the forever war on terror, “it is unlikely you would have been part of the one third of Americans who stood with King when he was alive.”

The real King wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power.

“He was a troublemaker and he was damned proud to be one,” Balto said.