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MLK convocation features messages of equality, activism

Therese Lydon/The Round Table

Braving sidewalks iced over with sleet, members of the Beloit campus and community found warmth and fiery words in Eaton Chapel at the 13th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Convocation, titled “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Embodying the Spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” on Monday, Jan. 16 at 4:15 p.m. The event opened with two songs by the Beloit Community Choir, followed by a welcome from President Scott Bierman, an announcement of the MLK Speech Contest Winners, including a performance from first prize winner Britney Johnson’20, and ending with a keynote address by local community activist Regina Dunkin ’96.

To warm up the audience, Rebekah Evans’18 asked everyone to stand up and clap a beat before the Beloit Community Choir, directed by Evans, sang rousing renditions of the songs “Watch Me Praise Him” by Deitrick Haddon and “Intersession” by William McDowell. Jaylyn Edwards accompanied with piano, while Dre Allen played drums. Members of the choir include Alexandria Lealey, Keturah Evans, Sheka Pabst and Britney Johnson’18.

Theodore Williams’18 and Megan Kowta’18 greeted the audience, thanking everyone for coming. Responding to the energy from the choir, Williams said “I dunno about you, but I feel a little chill, and not because it’s cold outside.” They introduced President Scott Bierman, who presented some biographical information about Dr. King.

Bierman praised King’s hard work in school, calling him “a very, very good high school student” as he skipped ninth and twelfth grade to attend Morehouse College, an all-male historically black university in Atlanta, Ga. at age fifteen. His grades, however, were “not so spectacular.” Bierman made the point by reading off King’s transcript, a series of mostly C’s and B’s and a few A’s.

“This reminds us that the correlation between college grades and future success, while real, is still far from perfect. In this case, spectacularly imperfect,” Bierman added, as if to encourage the students in the audience.

He praised Johnson, who wrote the winning speech, for “already receiving an honor that eluded MLK as a college student” as Dr. King did not receive any awards for his speeches until later. He remains the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 1964 for his civil rights leadership.

Bierman read an excerpt and slightly edited version of an editorial Dr. King had published his junior year in Morehouse’s student newspaper, titled “The Purpose of Education.” In it, Dr. King wrote that “the greatest threat to society may be a man gifted with reason but with no morals … We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character is the goal of education.”

Bierman called the piece a “warning for higher education” to provide this kind of comprehensive education and a “call for fierce urgency indeed”. He left the podium saying he is sure Dr. King would be glad to see everyone gathered in Eaton Chapel celebrating his legacy, as “we have no time to spare” to address urgent inequalities.

Kowta then explained the speech contest, which prompted students to write a 5-minute speech connecting their personal beliefs and faith to the spirit of MLK and his phrase “the fierce urgency of now.” Lou Hodkinson’18 won third place with their speech titled “Trapped,” about their experiences as an activist on campus. Tyler Kee’18 won second place with their speech titled “Bismillah”, Arabic for “in the name of God” about the connections between their Islamic values and Dr. King’s message.

First-place winner Johnson gave a motivating performance of her poem, titled “What Gran Taught Me,” about learning unconditional love and respect from her grandma. “Love given is not something you can take back,” she read. The answer, she said, comes in sharing love, especially in those everyday gestures of smiling or saying hi to people. When she finished, the crowd erupted into a standing ovation.

Williams then introduced Beloit City Councilor Regina Dunkin’96 who gave the keynote speech, “Reaching for the Dream.” Dunkin is passionate about helping children and families, and has been involved in a variety of community initiatives. She helped found the Merrill Center, and has worked with the Fresh Start Program, Eclipse Charter School and started the first children’s program at the Beloit Domestic Violence Shelter. She served for six years on the Beloit Board of Education and was reappointed to the Wisconsin State Public Defender Board by Governor Scott Walker, serving as its vice chair.

Therese Lydon/The Round Table

Dunkin called it “an honor to speak today about the importance of investing in our youth, and how MLK led the way.” Using the metaphor of needing to use the right ingredients to bake a good cake, she said it is vital that communities support their youth to reach their potential. “You put in what you get out,” she said.

She spoke of the ways her upbringing in Gary, Ind. influenced her passion for politics and community involvement today. “This is no time to cool off or to engage in the tranquilizer of gradualism,” she said, bringing the urgency to the present moment.

Her mother worked for Indiana’s first black mayor, Richard Hatcher, who Duncan talked to at an early age, and their family knew the senator that helped pass the Martin Luther King Jr Holiday bill in 1983. Through her mother’s connections, Dunkin was able to meet important figures such as Coretta Scott King, Scott Gregory and former President Barack Obama. A group of students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison chose her to meet him after touring the Merrill Center. While she couldn’t remember the three questions she wanted to ask him, she did remember to tell him about her work. She told students that “if I can meet the president, so can they, and that they can be the president.”

She was involved in the March on Washington for Jobs, Justice and Equality and Operation PUSH, or People United to Serve Humanity, a movement founded by Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1971 to end Black poverty in Chicago, Ill. She said she still remembers the chants from that historic march in 1963: “What do we want? Jobs! When do we want them? Now!” “I will never forget that day,” she said.

“My mother taught me strength, courage and determination – and the most valuable gift of all: love,” she said. Her godparents taught her stories about segregation and helped raise her in the church, where she also learned about the importance of community.

Another formative experience was visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Ala., which she described as a “large interpretive museum that depicts the Civil Rights Movement.” Located across from the 16th Street Baptist Church where four black schoolgirls were killed in a bombing in 1963, the Institute covers the complex history of the Civil Rights Movement, from the sit-ins, to Freedom Summer, to the Black Panthers, among other events and organizations.

“We need to share love to everyone, no matter what color or creed,” she said, adding, “let’s appreciate our differences and not forget the price that people have to stay for our freedom. Let’s be the change that we want to see.”

While she is “sad” that the Merrill Center closed after 27 years — the Center closed in November due to lack of funding —  she remains committed to her vision. “There’s a legacy that was built there,” she said. “That place was much more than a building.” She painted a picture of the Center, which she called a “nurturing and safe” place. “Whether it’s a bed to sleep in, food to eat, clothes and shoes to wear, we empower children and people from all walks of life to be successful. Senior citizens that come in and play bingo. I will always remember their jokes,” she said.

After thanking board members and others from college who have been “great investors” of her work, she presented a video made by Chris Lamaster, which was a slideshow of photos of children from Merrill Community Center with a hip hop music track featuring remixed words of Dr. King.

Hoping to inspire the audience with the story of the Merrill Center, she urged everyone to get involved. “The dreams of the children and families live on. We need to ask ourselves, how can I invest in our children? And don’t just talk about it, do it! Make a serious commitment to invest in our children. Go volunteer at a school. You don’t have to do 40 hours. You can do one hour. You can do half an hour,” she said, eliciting laughter from the audience.

“We as a people will get to the promised land,” she said. She received a standing ovation.

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