Wisconsin’s 40th Anniversary King Holiday Tribute & Ceremony
40 Meaningful Years"
|Dr. Jonathan Overby has been associated with the Wisconsin
King Holiday Tribute for all 40 years of its existence
first state tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., three years before his birthday was made a national holiday.
Dr. Jonathan Overby has been the producer of the State of Wisconsin King Tribute & Ceremony for 39 of the 40 years it has been in existence. And while Overby is
the producer, many people make a contribution and influence the event in some way, shape of form.
“This event drives itself, the logistical pieces that you have to put in place,” Overby said. “And there is always, with an event of this magnitude, backstage things
that the public, thank goodness, doesn’t have to engage in because it’s part of associating with people who are artistic, people whose lives are engaged in ways
that you have to put together with the people whose focus is in other areas. In other words, it’s kind of like a puzzle, putting them together and having the focus be
on one common goal and that is to be edifying, educational and entertaining. And I think you can do all of those things with an event like this and never lose sight of
the spirit of Dr. King.”
There are a lot of moving parts — and hours of behind-the-scenes work — in putting on this production. And in a way, it reminds Overby that the same was true of Dr.
King and the Civil Rights Movement.
“Dr. King didn’t accomplish what he accomplished without the help of others, specifically folks like Mahalia Jackson who was quite the patron for Dr. King’s work
and to remember that his words were quite profound,” Overby said. “To see Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s memorial in Washington, D.C. and see the things displayed
there, his monument, it’s striking to see the things that he envisioned for America being quite relevant today. And one of the strongest, in addition to being nurtured
by his wife Eleanor, to see how the thoughts that he projected and wanted to see realized are very similar to those of Dr. King, Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders
from around the world. In particular, I saw in some early signs of wanting equality to be a cornerstone to the American Dream, to create an environment nationally
that is welcoming to all people and not just some and wanting to give this country a sense of hope that people could make it and that a brighter, new day was
coming. The things that I saw were emblematic of the things that I’ve read from Dr. King and it reminded me that all of us, those who have passed on, are part of the
legacy of making this country one that is open to all. It is important to realize that not just justice for myself and my own people, but the struggles of my sister and my
brother are all part of what is important to make our nation and the world a better place.”
For Overby, who has traveled the world extensively as he researches world music, the King Holiday is a time to reflect on mankind’s unity and not its differences in
the spirit of Dr. King.
“When I was in Japan concertizing some years ago, the group that was hosting my visit, as I walked in, sang ‘Oh Happy Day,’” Overby recalled. “These were all
Japanese high school kids. And they nailed it. It was special for them. I could see their joy in expressing a particular artistic genre of music that certainly doesn’t
hail from Japan. It hails from here in the U.S. And to pay tribute to my visit in that context was very, very cool. The lead singer put in all of the embellishments that
she could. She was a high school student. You could tell that they were especially good and wanted to be genuine with their presentation. It reminds me today as we
Part 2 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
It’s hard to believe that it’s already 40 years since a group of volunteers put together a tribute to the
legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his birthday and not in April, remembering his life and not his
Just think about it. Jimmy Carter was president and there were still hostages in the American
embassy in Tehran. There were no personal computers or cell phones. Gas was pretty high after
continued inflation in the 1970s and the founding of OPEC. Beatle John Lennon was assassinated
and Mt. St. Helen in Washington erupted. The Mariel boat lift of refugees from Cuba to the U.S.
For most people, these things happened before they were born, including the founding of America’s
sit here that there are many things that groups offer to our nation and to the
world that speak beyond our own cultural traditions. I think that is as it should
be, that the gifts that we offer should be embraced and not isolated to the
celebration of just one particular group, certainly when it comes to things that
remind us of what our universalisms in how we live and the things that have
to do with love and respect and treating the stranger as though they were
your sister or brother.”
And it is this empathy that Overby feels is so lacking today, the empathy that
was the essence of who Dr. King was.
“My own particular focus is on trying to help people understand each other
better,” Overby said. “That has always been my goal. And of late, we have
seen the resurgence of hatred in our country and all around the world. And
when people don’t understand, they often hate. And what they hate, they
marginalize. And what they marginalize, they often kill. And that is a tragic
narrative about what exists and also an enormous obligation that we all have
to think of and live in the footsteps of those who are suffering, those who are
poor and those who don’t have BMWs and Mercedes in the driveway that we
polish every week, those who are trying to eke out a living and to treat those
who are immigrants here with the same kind of embrace that those who have
been here for generations have been treated. On this one day, I think it is
important to keep those things alive.”
It is this sense of empathy that is the cornerstone of the world’s religions and
spiritual movements, an empathy that binds humanity together as one.
“Dr. King was not a perfect man and the things he lived for stretch far beyond
his own imperfection to wanting this world to be a more perfect union as we
have heard articulated in many contexts,” Overby said. “I think being
consumed with things that are not perfect can be a distraction. I think the
better piece of how we live our lives is to be good people. There is nothing
wrong with being good and generous and empathetic and welcoming. The
spirit of welcoming is consistent with all of the major religions around the
world, every single one of the major ones from Hinduism to Buddhism to
Catholicism to Islam to Judaism. They all are not just passing invitations in
their sacred texts. They are commandments and directives to treat the
stranger as if they were part of your family. The fact that all of these religious
and spiritual groups want the stranger to be treated well is a sign that this is
a universal idea that isn’t just relegated to one group. It is a global idea on
the importance of treating others in a welcoming way. If we got to the place of
being more welcoming as a nation, to me that would be a great achievement.”
This is a refreshing, humanistic and needed perspective on the work of Dr.
King. Dr. King is more relevant to the issues the world faces than ever before.