C-U celebrates the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Stephanie Kim

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is much more than a day off from school and work for most — it is an opportunity to serve and give back to the community. 

Since 1983, the third Monday of January has marked a federal holiday in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the legacy he left behind as a front-runner of equal rights, peace and unity. In 1994, Congress designated the King holiday as a National Day of Service in response to his pressing question: “What are you doing for others?” 

This is a question that students and community members of Champaign-Urbana can answer for themselves. Not only for today, but for the entire week — and throughout the year. 

This year’s theme of the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration is “Honoring the Civil Rights Movement as the Struggle Continues: Empowering the Dream … Make It Your Own.”  

The commemorative week began last Friday with the 13th Annual Countywide Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration at the Hilton Garden Inn — with keynote speaker Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of the late Oliver L. Brown (Brown v. Board of Education) — and the 29th Anniversary Event at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday night. 

Monday morning, the Advocacy for Justice Committee invited community members to celebrate the birth of MLK Jr. as a way to begin the National Day of Service. The rest of the day unfolded with two service events that encouraged students and Champaign-Urbana residents to engage in their own communities. Both events aimed to provide on-site volunteer activities to continue Dr. King’s dream of unifying a diverse community. 

These events jump started the commemorative week, which seeks to “speak to the diversity and voice of civil rights and struggles that Dr. King faced,” said Otis Noble III, co-chair of the Commemorative MLK Committee and senior campus and community affairs specialist. 

“With planning these events, it really is at the core trying to bring a full community and say, ‘This is what we remember; this was a great struggle that really changed our country. But there is more work to be done, and together we can make that happen,’” Noble III said. 

To achieve this goal, the Commemorative MLK Committee tried to make their events “open, accessible and inviting to a wide variety of people,” said Anthony Fontana, co-chair of the Commemorative MLK Committee and associate director of admissions and enrichment academy.

Events include dinner celebrations, breakfasts, movies, volunteer opportunities, panel discussions and a first-time poverty simulation in collaboration with the University’s School of Social Work on Friday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

The objective of this simulation is to “better understand the issues, hurdles and roadblocks that individuals living in poverty face,” said Christin Avgar, School of Social Work assistant dean for student affairs and Commemorative MLK Committee member. The simulation will be held at 1010 W. Nevada St. in Urbana.

Although the poverty simulation may be more engaging or active than other events, Avgar urges students to participate in what the MLK, Jr. celebration has to offer as a whole.

“All of the events provide the opportunity for all individuals to come together to celebrate the legacy of a truly remarkable man who changed our world,” she said. 

And the depth of Dr. King’s legacy is one that cannot be simply learned through books about the civil rights movement, Fontana said. Nor can it be limited or labeled as merely history, he said. 

It’s a movement that continues. We need to be able to take his messages and keep them moving as a part of your life today and see that the effort is not done,” he said.

Along with this, Noble III said he hopes students and community members will be able to see that MLK Jr.’s legacy and the civil rights movement does not pertain only to “black folks.” 

“I think it’s bigger than that. It’s about equality. It’s about justice,” he said. “For that reason, I hope that people understand that Dr. King was about progress that included everyone’s voice and feel that we have to continue that type of process for our future.”

All events are free except “Realizing the Dream: Exploring Social and Economic Class on Campus” and the “Poverty Simulation,” which both require a RSVP to Fontana or Noble III. The commemorative week will end on Saturday with a community celebration at the Krannert Center from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. 

Stephanie can be reached at [email protected]