Parkland hosts 15th annual Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Countywide Celebration

Staff Writer

Sierra Benson

Last Friday, Parkland offered to host the annual countywide celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the first time. While people gathered to take their seats a local music group by the name of Mo’ Betta Music played songs by jazz musician Sonny Rollins. There was mention of Dr. King’s principals, awards given to local activists in the community, and also keynote speaker Kathryn Harris impersonating Harriet Tubman.

For the past 14 years, the event took place at the Hilton Garden Inn. This is specifically a countywide celebration and therefore a collaboration between the city of Urbana, the city of Champaign, Champaign County, the U of I, and Parkland.

“It’s been hosted by UIUC for several years, Parkland’s always been involved, but we haven’t been able to host… I think that it’s very important to branch out from the larger university and come to a space that is much more diverse than the university and a much more accessible location in our community as well,” said sociology professor Evelyn Reynolds.

Barbara Kessel who started Books for Prisoners received the James R. Burgess Jr. Award; Rohn Koester an active volunteer for Champaign County received the Doris Hoskins Prestigious Community Service Award; and Melany Jackson received the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Outstanding Achievement Award for her help with the homeless.

Reynolds came out to support the activists who had fought for general members of society. That is, to say, members who were not particularly wealthy or part of the dominant group,

“I feel like most people view him as one of the most amazing public figures that we’ve had in our history. As far as the way this country celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. I do take issue. Every black history month, or every January there’s always a big focus on Martin Luther King. I mean he’s wonderful, we should focus on him, but we do neglect so many other figures. Noticeably Malcom X,” Reynolds said.

Parkland’s HR Director Kathleen McAndrews explains why the committee decided to spotlight another historical figure much older than King,

“We thought we would do something different this year, so this is our 15th one that we’ve done, and in the past we’ve typically had a speaker come and just talk about things related to Dr. King’s life. I think a past committee member had attended one of the presentations that Harriet Tubman [re-enacted by Kathryn Harris] had done in the library at Springfield,” McAndrews said.

Both Reynolds and McAndrews agree there has been significant progress to diversify society; however, there is still more work to be done. When asked if life has gotten any better after King’s passing McAndrews had this to say.

“I think so. You know it doesn’t ever end, it doesn’t stop, so you’re always trying to do better and improve because if you don’t you might start going backwards… You just can’t be complacent.”

Reynolds said, “I definitely won’t say that we haven’t made progress, there’s been progress. We’ve literally desegregated public spaces, and that’s very important, but unfortunately a lot of those day to day stereotypes, misconceptions, the stratification of people, all those things are still happening.”

McAndrews thinks what people should do to expand their outlook is volunteer.

“There’s Books for Prisoners, at Parkland we have the food pantry. I would say volunteering is huge! Volunteer opportunities where you get to engage with people from the community. From those opportunities you might learn what other needs there might be.”

Reynolds on the other hand sees the way to improvement as not only changing structurally, but by also changing preconceived notions,

“I think anyone interested in activism and making the world a better place, has to address both structural systemic issues and also the subtle things that happen with our interaction or our communication. There’s a lot of structural reform but not a lot of reform in our perceptions of racism,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds also proposes having a more holistic discussion of King,

“Martin Luther King presented a lot of radical perspectives. He was very against American imperialism, he was definitely a proponent of low wage workers, we don’t hear those things about him as much,” Reynolds said.