Many Thanks to Jonathan Gramling, Editor and Owner of Madison Hues Newspaper for the following interview in promotion of the State of Wisconsin’s 37th Annual Tribute and Ceremony Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
For the past 38 years, Dr. Jonathan Overby has produced and hosted the state of
Wisconsin King Holiday Tribute & Ceremony in the Rotunda of the State Capitol. It
is always a dignified, meaningful, inspirational and entertaining event that fills the perimeter of the Rotunda with spectators and inspires thousands more on
Wisconsin Public Television and Radio — and this year on WORT Radio at noon on
photo by Jonathan Grambling, Editor of The Madison Hues – Overby in his WPR office.
Overby has always been adept at steering the ceremony through the shoals of
political partisanship and the societal divides of hatred and ignorance while
keeping the ceremony relevant to the civil rights movement.
“There have been a number of governors who have been in office, which gives
testimony to wither bipartisan or a spirit of good community by governors whether
they were Democrats or Republicans,” Overby said. “In fact, Governor Dreyfus
was in office when this event started. He used to march us around the State
Capitol. It was hysterical because he always teased me about my run-down
shoes. They were patent-leather and real glossy. Back in that day, I was trying to
make it income-wise. His sense of dedication to the event was amazing.
I appreciated that somehow this event for some and hopefully most transcends
political ideology that move away from the spirit of what Dr. King was really trying
to address, in my opinion, to show his commitment to reducing hatred.”Overby grew up in the inner city of Milwaukee in the 1950s and 1960s at a time when the NAACP’s open housing marches were met with resistance — and projectiles — as they tried to cross the 16th Avenue Bridge to the south side of Milwaukee. But he doesn’t remember the social divide being as wide and as vitriolic as it is today.
“It seems to be in vogue that people can say whatever they want to say about other people,” Overby observed. “And it is almost in code that you can say certain things and it speaks to a certain audience or to constituents or people in the communities that you are aligned with. And it is intended to be polarizing. I don’t know if that is at the front of what some people are creating when they make these comments. But if we were to analyze it, they could see that if you are building up one community as being better than the other, that is the very essence of discrimination.
And it is very sad. And aside from making political comments, which by employment I am not allowed to do, I have seen fear rekindled in people from the Muslim community, in people who are from Latin speaking countries, the genuine fear that they have of in addition to being ‘other,’ the outsider, they are now being marginalized in a way that puts them in a category of being a ‘suspect.’ And that is a whole new level that I don’t even know existed in the 1950s in which discrimination was so largely used because of a connection to fear.
And that change should terrify us all. Of all of the years that I produced this event, this year it is with mixed emotions that I am affiliated with it or producing it because even though it is a day of celebration of Dr. King’s legacy and what he lived for, it’s also a day of reflection. And there are some serious changes that need to occur in order for us to remind you and get reacquainted with the idea that there is no one set of ethnic groups who are American. And that is unfortunately the platform on which too many institutions and too many individuals are sustaining themselves.”
In spite of being the most informed generation to have ever walked this planet with instantaneous messaging and vast amounts of knowledge available at our fingertips, people appear to know less about the people who live around them, especially people who are different than them.
“People have, unfortunately, become distrusting of each other, neighbors distrusting of what is going on next door because the people next door don’t look like most of the people in the neighborhood or their language or the clothing that they wear or their interactions in the community seem to be foreign,” Overby emphasized. “And because of that foreignness, people tend to not understand. They tend to fear. And
humanity has shown that when people fear, they hate.
And that hate often led to drastic events. And we are seeing it on a daily basis. And people have bought into a real lie, in my view, about how dangerous certain people are. You can argue about how this country was built and who served and who owns this and who doesn’t own that. But the fact is that Dr. King, as I have come to understand him, wasn’t asking for anyone to be set aside. He was asking to be given an opportunity to be in the big room, to be a part of the larger spirit of what being an American really meant. And that meant having access to the American Dream, education and housing and basically having equal rights in terms of voting and that kind of thing. I don’t think the equation is hard to put together that when some people fear, they tend to hate. And from there, it regresses to a much more dramatic ending.”
This year’s theme is “The Journey Ahead.” And Overby hopes people will use this time to reflect on what they can do to make our community and society a better place for everyone.
“My hope is for this event to give us pause to think about the work to be done,” Overby said. “Where can I as an individual do to make things better? And I think collectively and individually we have to speak up when we see other people saying and doing things that we know are morally and ethically wrong, whether it be with the institutions that we are serving or leaders in our own community, marginalizing people for either political or financial gain is a big part of the problem, in my own estimation and view. And I think if there were an issue to which Dr. King would speak to today, being different is not reason to be threatened. I think we have a lot of real deep thinking to do.
A lot of institutions that I interact with in which there are a number of good people working there, unfortunately, it involves risk to speak when they see things that are wrong. I think if ever we needed to be invested with the willingness to speak to these things, I think the time is certainly now more so that I have seen in the last 50 years.”
As always, the celebration will have a diversity of performances from around the region. There is the Tremper High School Wind Ensemble and the gospel group The Brown Sisters from Chicago. And this year’s keynote speaker is Dr. Valerie Daniels Carter from Milwaukee.
“Valerie is on the board of the Green Bay Packers,” Overby said. “I believe she’s one of the owners of the Milwaukee Bucks. And the work that she has done in the Milwaukee community to elevate neighborhoods and the jobs that she has provided for people and her status as one of the very influential African American women in the country. And she is a dynamic speaker.”
With the majesty of this official state King Holiday Tribute, one would be surprised to find out that the state of Wisconsin contributes nothing to the event and even charges it to use the Rotunda space. In the past couple of years, Overby and his wife Amy have been forced to underwrite some of the expenses.
“All contributions are tax deductible,” Overby said. “We have a lot of work to do in that area. One of the things that has been an issue is taking a lot of small contributions and processing those versus getting it in big chunks. All we want to do is break even.”