Community comes together to celebrate MLK, looks to future

BENTON HARBOR — Last month’s events celebrating Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are over, but the work it inspires continues.

Households, businesses and classrooms viewed 12 livestreamed events more than 670 times during Now is the Time! The MLK Celebration Week, a free, community-wide effort presented Jan. 18-22 by Lake Michigan College, Whirlpool Corp. and supporting sponsors United Way of Southwest Michigan, Kinexus Group and Horizon Bank.

While the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the in-person Jan. 18 MLK breakfast celebration hosted the past two decades at LMC, the reimagined event inspired by King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” provided an impactful, educational and timely forum to explore King’s life and legacy.

“We are so grateful to the three dozen community members who came together to create a vision and shape this week,” said LMC President Dr. Trevor Kubatzke. “The hundreds of participants not only made the week itself a success but also set a course for the future. With the message ‘Now is the time,’ we plan to use this momentum to inspire not only further crucial conversations but also positive action for the betterment of our community.”

The MLK Celebration Week featured daily virtual discussion groups on topics ranging from Juneteenth to relevant books and films to social justice issues. There were trivia events on King, the Civil Rights Movement and local Civil Rights history. “Martin’s Dream,” a recorded virtual theater performance for children, was streamed to more than 50 families. The United Way of Southwest Michigan Food Drive raised more than $1,750 to support food pantries in Berrien, Van Buren and Cass counties. Meanwhile, 400 MLK Art Activity Packets were used by local elementary schools, Boys & Girls Club of Benton Harbor, Water Street Glassworks, African American History and Literature Gallery, Krasl Art Center, as well as both Benton Harbor and St. Joseph libraries.

The week started on Jan. 18, with more than 240 households tuning in live for the MLK Celebration Week Kickoff event highlighted by a passionate keynote address from Tékeidra Masters, an 18-year-old graduate of Benton Harbor High School and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America 2020 Midwest Regional Youth of the Year. That event also featured inspirational musical performances and messages from U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist, St. Joseph Mayor Mike Garey, Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad, new Benton Harbor Boys & Girls Clubs CEO Mackenzie Kastl, LMC President Dr. Trevor Kubatzke, and Whirlpool Corp. Chief Executive Officer Marc Bitzer.

“Wow, I had goosebumps, chills, and tears throughout the program,” said committee member, Rosa Skinner.

Another highlight was the presentation of the inaugural MLK Spotlights to Lynn Todman, vice president of health equity at Spectrum Health Lakeland, the Race Relations Council of Southwest Michigan, and Jada Willis, Miss Benton Harbor 2020. The replay of the kickoff, which can be found at lakemichigancollege.edu/MLK, has already had an additional 240 viewings, while an additional 100 viewers have watched a separate video of Masters’ speech.

“The program will stick with me longer and more deeply than ever before,” said attendee Audrey Lester.

The week culminated Jan. 22 with a news conference announcing the commitment of both St. Joseph and Benton Harbor to install statues of King in both cities by 2022, a project long championed by Sharon and Mack Brown of the African American History and Literature Gallery. A planning meeting for the project via Zoom is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Feb. 11. Those interested should RSVP to Tami Miller at the Krasl Art Center.

“We’re just getting started,” Sharon Brown said. “A lot of details are yet to be determined. We want the community to help shape this.”

Grace Kelmer, MLK committee co-chair and director of LMC’s Mendel Center Mainstage added that the silver lining in moving to an all-virtual event this year is creating content that can live on well beyond the week, including select video recordings and a series of new resources at lakemichigancollege.edu/MLK. These resources include a new Underrepresented Businesses Directory, an awareness and equity guide to woman-and-minority-owned businesses in Berrien, Van Buren and Cass counties; an MLK Resource Gallery of books, podcasts, films, community resources and more that explore race relations, bias, racism and current events; and the MLK Artistic Reflections Gallery.

“These are resources that we will continue to build upon and update throughout the year,” Kelmer said. “It’s a continuation of LMC’s commitment to preserving King’s memory, promoting his legacy in our communities, and having real conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion. Throughout this event and beyond, King’s own words have provided our mantra – ‘Now is the time.’”

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