MLK Day Celebration

Honoring Two Giants: MLK Day in Brookline

On January 15, my League of Women Voters friends and I stood at our voter registration table at the Coolidge Corner Theater, welcoming folks and passing out literature. I was excited to participate again this year in Brookline’s celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and for the speaking program to begin.

Fierce Urgency of Now

The theme this year was the “Fierce Urgency of Now,” calling back to Dr. King’s words during the 1963 March on Washington. One year into the Trump Administration, these words struck me with their full honesty:

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action. – MLK, 1963

Brookline’s celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was incredible, maybe even better than last year. Selectmember Bernard Greene opened up the event by welcoming everyone and setting an austere tone, emphasizing the importance of dialogues about racial justice in a time like today.

The notes of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” rang through the theatre, and with Zvi A. Sesling’s words, we were ready for a journey through Regie Gibson‘s rhythmic mind.

confrontation & Transcendence

I’ve seen Regie perform before; each time left me speechless. He is a poet and an educator, with a mastery of language, a strong stage presence, and most of all, a message to share. He spoke of MLK’s ability to transcend. Dr. King knew how to organize people of color and challenge white people, to truly transcend the status quo and confront racism head-on.

Following Regie, the Brookline High School Testostatones performed two songs: A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke and Shed a Little Light by James Taylor. Then, Brookline High School student Carolyn Parker-Fairbain performed a poem, Heresy. She performed with confidence and authenticity.

the radical king

Chad Williams, a professor at Brandeis University, offered the keynote address about the “Radical” King. Professor Williams called out the white-washing of MLK’s legacy. We need to reeducate ourselves about the real Martin Luther King, Jr., and the ideas he really, truly promoted, radical as they were. When we know what MLK actually preached and fought for, we will have better tools and more precise language to respond to what’s happening today.

Professor Williams asked who was ready to resist the white-washing of MLK, and take up his fight today. Slowly, we all began to stand up. Sitting in the back row of the theater, I was floored by the calm standing ovation in front of me. My feelings of inadequacy and smallness melted off of me, as I looked around the room, fueled by the radical determination in my neighbors’ eyes, the resilience in their postures.

My heart burning from Professor Williams’ words, I was wondering why they had anything else on the program. Now, I am so glad that the afternoon didn’t end there.

Commemorating John Wilson

Rob Daves came out onto the stage to share with us how we can honor MLK, by keeping the civil rights giant front and center in our town’s work. In particular, he pointed to art. Art can shape our actions in profound ways, especially in civic spaces.

John Wilson, an esteemed African-American sculptor, lived in Brookline for 50 years. He is best remembered for his sculptures of MLK.

As the Museum of Fine Art’s website describes, Wilson used “shapes, lines, and colors like Dr. King used words, to change how people looked at others who were different from them.” He didn’t sculpt Dr. King as the man. Rather, he sculpted him as everything his work and legacy embodied: vision, strength, and justice. When Wilson created a bronze bust of MLK for the U.S. Capitol Building Rotunda in Washington DC in 1985, it was the first representation of a African American in the space.

When Wilson passed away in 2015, his artwork lived on in major museums across the United States. Still today, though, none of his work is on display in his hometown.

The Committee to Commemorate John Wilson found this unacceptable. During Town Meeting this fall, the Committee proposed purchasing one of John Wilson’s MLK sculptures for Town Hall, for all residents to see. The Town aims to purchase a 30-inch sculpture of Dr. King, crafted by Wilson. It will be mounted on a 50-inch white pedestal in the Town Hall first floor lobby, for everyone who stops by, say, for a Zoning Board of Appeals hearing, to register to vote, to attend a public health class, or to provide input on the 9th school search project. The Committee just needs to secure the funding to do so, and the Town has agreed to install and protect the artwork.

If you think Brookline should commemorate this brilliant artist and the Radical King, consider making a tax-deductible donation to the John Wilson MLK Fund. Here are the exact directions from the Committee’s pamphlet:

To give online
give.brooklinecommunity.org/JohnWilsonMLK
To give by mail
Send a check made out to “Brookline Community Foundation” with “John Wilson/MLK” on the memo line and mail to Brookline Community Foundation, 40 Webster Place, Brookline, MA 02445
For more information
Rob Daves at robdaves@rcn.com
Mac Dewart at murraydewart@gmail.com

To read more about this endeavor and John Wilson’s work, check out these articles:

I can’t wait until the day when Town Hall visitors feel the emotional stir of Wilson’s work. Imagine how our public dialogue will be transformed when MLK’s likeness inspires each public meeting. It’s a great way to honor a gifted artist from our community, while confronting injustice in our own neighborhoods. When we come together for something as important as this, we show what our priorities truly are.

Thank you to the Committee to Commemorate John Wilson, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Committee, the Brookline Office of Diversity, Inclusion & Community Relations, and all the performers and leaders who fill us with urgency and strengthen our community. Thank you for honoring MLK with your work each and every day, not just on a Monday in January.