Standing before a crowd of more than 100 people who filled each pew of St. James the Greater Catholic Church in Eau Claire Monday evening in order to honor the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., Beryle Middleton reflected on years past.
Not that long ago, had those same people — of all different ages, socioeconomic status, race, ethnic background — gathered, they would’ve been targeted for standing together against racial injustice and prejudices, and fighting that hate with love and nonviolence.
“Maybe even less than a decade ago, this church would’ve been target for a bomb,” Middleton, director of Uniting Bridges, told the crowd. “But Dr. King’s message is very strong in this room tonight.”
Middleton was one of dozens who spoke, read and sang at Eau Claire’s annual sunset ceremony commemorating and recognizing King as a key leader of the civil rights movement, whose actions and words, written and spoken, continue to inspire today.
The ceremony, which was organized by Uniting Bridges and sponsored by numerous community businesses and organizations, consisted of songs, readings of some of King’s most famous speeches and writings, as well as remarks from leaders of government, religion and education in the community, who connected King’s work during the civil rights to how they can — and should — be applied to today’s world.
Voices young and old recited the iconic words of King’s “Give Us the Ballot,” “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and, of course, “I Have a Dream.”
Musical performers at the event included Eau Claire’s CollECtive Choir, who had audience members clapping and swaying along with their rendition of “Where Is the Love?” as well as the Chippewa Valley Youth Choir, which closed the night of music with a rendition of U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love.)”
During her remarks, Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, reflected on a trip a few years back to Washington.
She couldn’t help but notice the great disparity she saw before her — dozens of people lined up to get a free meal at a church near the White House. Homeless veterans slept in a park near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
All of this led Emerson to the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, where she thought of Abraham Lincoln’s courage in fighting slavery, and King, who was beaten, jailed and assassinated while standing up for equal rights for all.
That same courage should prevail today in fighting for justice and equality, Emerson said.
“I’m going to assume we all have a similar dream as Dr. King; that we all want what is best for our entire community,” Emerson said. “How do we get there? We need to start by truly examining where we are today. For many people, life in Eau Claire, life in Wisconsin is good. ... But many of our brothers and sisters do not have a good life. How can we, inspired by the memory of Dr. King help lift others up? Because if things are not working for everyone in our community, our community is not truly working.”
UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt closed the evening with words from King’s speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop:” “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”
“Clearly, those words, while intended to inspire civil rights activists working for justice in the late ‘60s, still hold relevance today,” Schmidt said. “We must all do what we can to continue the work of achieving Dr. King’s dream in which people of all backgrounds can contribute to a better life for everyone. ... We can all leave here inspired to do our part in Dr. King’s words: To make America what it ought to be.”