Milwaukee has been home to some of the largest celebrations observing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday dating back to 1969. Indeed, Milwaukee has the honor of being the birthplace of the public celebrations now common in most major American cities.
On January 17, 2011 at Mt. Olive Baptist Church, 10:30 a.m., there will be a reenactment of the first community-wide celebration that was held January 15, 1969 at Parkman Junior High School (now called Parkman Middle School).
The keynote speaker will be Rev. Kevin Patterson, whose father, Rev. Genora Patterson gave the invocation at the one of the earlier celebrations.
Just as there was at the first King celebration, area students will sing, dance and recite of quotes from famous King speeches. Two noted singing groups will appear, along with choirs from the Mt. Olive Baptist Church. Awards will also be presented.
Dr. King was shot and killed on April 4,1968. On Jan. 15,1969, Parkman Jr. High School teachers, including Jerry Ann Hamilton, a local civil rights activist who would later go on to become president of the Milwaukee Branch NAACP, organized the first known public celebration of Dr. Kings’ birthday.
“We were determined not to let Dr. Kings’ work fade away in history. We wanted to honor him.” Hamilton explained. Committee members who helped Hamilton organize the event included Timothy Phillips, Linda Jackson-Conyers, Virginia Daniels, and other faculty members presented the idea to Andrew Douglas, then Principal of Parkman.
During an interview, Hamilton and others recalled that Douglas warned the group it would not be easy to get approval from the Milwaukee Public School Board to sponsor such a celebration but he thought it was a great idea. Douglas also urged the organizers to seek approval from citizens, business leaders, etc. in the community.
He sincerely believed that many would think the celebration would appear racist and cost the city money. “We were told that this was not the time to start the celebration,” Hamilton recalled.
“(Douglas felt) the celebration might attract hate mongers set on violence, and that it might cost the city money to have students participate. People would have to take off from their jobs.”
Hamilton remembers that the idea was met with opposition and criticism from all races. In the end, the board of education finally relented, but warned that students would not be able to miss any class time. Hamilton revealed that a noted classmate of Dr. King supported the idea and played a part in the formation of the celebration.
Major television stations embraced the idea as well and provided support of staff and publicity for the event.
The King celebration went off without a hitch and would grow into one of the biggest celebrations recognizing the civil rights leader in the Midwest.
Recently Hamilton met with a group of early supporters, namely Gwen Jackson, Timothy Phillips and Lucinda Gordon who are in favor of the reenactment and supported the idea of a reunion.
It is hoped that early supporters, organizers and previous award recipients will join others for a great celebration on January 17.
They are invited to join the expected crowd at 10 a. m. to be available for a picture. Light refreshments will be served after the program.