The name Martin Luther King Jr. is forever synonymous with peace, non-violence, activism, leadership and service.
Since 1983, 15 years after King’s death, the third Monday of January has been federally dedicated as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, or to some National Day of Service, to honor the man who lived those ideas and defied the odds to put an official end to segregation in the hostile Jim Crow-ridden South.
This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, UW-Eau Claire and the surrounding community made sure King’s work extended far beyond the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, home of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, or the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where he and others marched 50 miles to the Alabama state capital of Montgomery demanding equality.
Students participated in community service projects all throughout the city, with stints at local churches and the Boys and Girls Club, among others.
Associate Dean of Students and coordinator of the UW-Eau Claire Civil Rights Pilgrimage, Jodi Thesing-Ritter said it is one thing to know about King and his efforts, and it is another to apply it.
“One of the things that Dr. King says is that everybody should be a civil rights leader regardless of your career,” Thesing-Ritter said. “I think today is a day that shows working for justice in our community is something we can all do.”
At the Boys and Girls Club, students there spent the first two hours cleaning up the facility and spent the last two interacting with teens who came there after school.
Senior Jesse Martinez, an education major and student coordinator of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, was one those students. He said becoming involved and realizing there’s more to be done in the name of freedom should motivate people to get out and lend a hand.
“A lot of people will say that the movement is kind of over,” Martinez said. “But there’s so much more work that we need to do and just being able to continue to do that through service or any way you possibly can is important.”
When the community service aspect of the day ended, students and community members had the opportunity to go to the Sunset Ceremony at the St. James the Greater Catholic Church on the north side of Eau Claire.
The event has been held in rotating facilities every Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and includes a collection of readings, powerpoints and music to remember one of history’s most successful non-violent leaders.
History professor Selika Ducksworth-Lawton, the coordinator of the ceremony, said it gives everyone in the Eau Claire area a chance to reflect on what King stood for as well as what can be done in the present and future to avoid such persecutions again.
“It’s meant to bring the community together to talk about what the beloved community is and to celebrate the idea of racial unity and integration Dr. King worked for,” Ducksworth-Lawton said.
Since 2009, the event has taken place at St. James, challenging non-religious and religious activists to put differences aside to focus on the idea of equal opportunity for all people no matter what race, ethnicity, culture or religious differences stand in the way.
“It’s one of those extraordinary nights where things are overlapped where they often don’t have a chance to,” the Rev. Allen Keniston of University Lutheran Church said. “It’s the secular and the sacred folks of lots of races that became the history of the movement. It’s really a remarkable night for us as a community.”
As both the service learning event as well as the Sunset Ceremony eluded to, the ideas of change shouldn’t just stop after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but they should be a kickstart to a way of life.
As an administrator, Thesing-Ritter said she encourages students to find their own voice deep within themselves.
“I think I’m in a position to gently challenge students to think deeper and more critically about their world around them, and in doing so, in whatever their strengths are, they can find a way to make change,” Thesing-Ritter said.
The night before he died, King delivered his “Mountaintop” speech, where he said through struggle, he had been to the top of the mountain and could see the promised land.
While King never had the opportunity to reach that promised land, other people can, and events like Monday provide a stepping stone for those who wish to reach it.