“It is important to recognize and call out injustice in all forms without exception. But if we want to do something about it, the effort will require more than just yelling. We have to get active.” – Chris Abele, Milwaukee County Executive

The 34th annual celebration of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday has been an important event for historically segregated Milwaukee. It remains one of the few city-wide events that honors the late Civil Rights leader. But it also provides a platform for local students to present their interpretation of Dr. King’s dream through art, writing, and speech contests.

Martha Love was a well-known community leader and political activist when she was hired by the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts fifteen years ago to produce the MLK Birthday Celebration. Understanding that the program’s success required diverse support, she brought together a steering committee that represented a wide range of ethnic and religious groups. One of the early partners included the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition (MMWC).

“This event is a wonderful opportunity for the broader community to come together and stand for truth and justice as well as celebrate the tremendous student talent that exists in our city,” said Janan Najeeb, President of the MMWC and co-chair of the celebration. “This is probably one of the most important and rewarding projects I have ever been involved with.”

As a native resident who grew-up in Milwaukee, Najeeb felt that Dr. King’s vision was very much in line with her Islamic faith, and the mission of her organization. After two years serving on the committee, she invited the largest Muslim organization in Wisconsin to be a major sponsor for the event, and the Islamic Society of Milwaukee has supported the program since.

Najeeb also saw an opportunity for the Salam School to participate in the contests, as a chance for students to build relationships and express their talent through the competition process. Salam School continues to have a high rate of participation in recent years because of its vice-principal, Zehra Tahir, who is also a MMWC board member.

More than 3,000 Milwaukee Public Schools students submitted work for the celebration. Winners were chosen by a jury for speech, visual art, and writing for students in kindergarten through grade 12.

Paul Mathews, President and CEO of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, has remained a big supporter of the efforts to host and promote the MLK event. “It matters that each of us is here, showing support for the values that Dr. King lived and the lessons he taught,” he said at the start of this year’s show.

Milwaukee and Atlanta are the only cities to have celebrated Dr. King’s Birthday annually since 1984. Along with the student contest winners, performances from community organizations included the Milwaukee Flyers Tumbling Team, Milwaukee High School of the Arts Jazz Ensemble, Latino Arts Strings, United Indians of Milwaukee, and One Nation for Youth Arts & Healing (O.N.F.Y.A.H).

“We want to have someone who can motivate us and inspire us to do what is right in our lives. Dr. King did just that,” said Mayor Tom Barrett, City of Milwaukee, during the event. “But we as a community must also provide that moral clarity for our lives. We cannot just rely on government, or churches, or civic organizations. We have to take charge of our own lives, because we have the ability to shape individuals around us.”

The images presented in the photo essay are highlights from the celebration program. They show local Muslim youth in Milwaukee joining other students, following in the footsteps of Dr. King in the struggle for freedom and equality by “Taking a Stand for Truth and Justice.”

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Wisconsin Muslim Journal