It Takes “Good Community” to Run State MLK Tribute

Dr. Jonathan Overby has been the voice of the of the state of Wisconsin’s oldest official Tribute & Ceremony honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. since 1980.  His powerful voice and song selections center attendees, listeners and viewers on themes that revisit the painful and rich Black history, as well as tie us to the present, while celebrating how far we’ve come.

In 1981, when Overby learned from his cousin, Dr. Anthony Brown, that the state of Wisconsin Tribute & Ceremony may not be held, Overby leapt into action gathering community members like Betty Franklin Hammonds to help plan and execute the annual state celebration. The late Rev. Vern Visick was also a longtime supporter and advocate for the MLK program. Over the years, numerous community members and leaders have played significant roles in working with Overby, who has been involved in the planning and production of all 42 official state tributes.

  Since the beginning, the January event has been held in the Capitol rotunda.  One of the main goals has been “to have a real community and collaborative spirit to the event,” Overby said. “I wanted to produce it in a way that the people — the community could be involved.”  

Overby said holding the annual program requires people with skills in live radio and television production, event planning, booking talent, interacting with dais guests, marketing, public relations, social media, budget management and securing funding. Much of this was supplied by the personal finances of Overby and Visick.

Over the years, the number of people involved in the production has grown to include over 100 radio and television staff as well as 35-plus volunteers who serve as set up crew, ushers, greeters and security.  Live radio and television broadcasting of the celebration has grown over time.

Overby says, “people have learned the value of continuing to build good community.”  

Every year, depending on the Wisconsin weather, between 1,200 to 2,000 people pack themselves in the rotunda to participate in person, while more than a half million people listen to radio and watch the ceremony on television.  Every governor has participated and supported the MLK ceremony that is filled with educational, inspirational and high-quality programming.  

Guest speakers have included celebrities, authors and activists from throughout Wisconsin and the nation.  Some of Overby’s favorites have been Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till; Attallah Shabazz, the eldest daughter of Malcolm X; famed actress Cicely Tyson; Loretta Long, who played Susan on Sesame Street; actor Clifton Davis; Shirley Anita Chisholm, the first African American congresswoman; and noted author, Michelle Alexander, who wrote “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

Treasured guest entertainers include Chicago Mass Choir, University of Illinois Black Chorus, Malcolm Williams and the Voices of Great Faith, Holy Redeemer Institutional Church of God in Christ Choir, Latino Strings, Ko-Thi Dance Company and Highway to Heaven Gospel Project. 

For many, the highlight in each year’s ceremony is the recitation of the “I Have A Dream” speech by one or more young people. Boys and girls have performed the speech and, some, according to Overby, “have knocked it out of the park with their delivery or the speech.” 

Overby added, “We have young students recite the speech as an intentional moment to ensure that the message of MLK is not only important to those of the movement, but also for tomorrow. Young people need to be a part of that story and carry on the message that there is still work to do.” 

 He wants young people to know that they too can serve.

 “They are the embodiment of the dream and can move it forward in a positive way,” said Overby.

In addition to including youth, Overby is very deliberate about ensuring “there is a womanist element to the program.” 

“Were it not for the involvement of Black women, the movement and the Black church would not have been as successful for enacting change in the United States,” Overby said.

Overby produces the Tribute & Ceremony under the umbrella of AfricaSong Communications, Inc. His community-based nonprofit started in 1992 in response to horrific acts of hatred in the United States. AfricaSong is committed to celebrating, edifying, and learning about the African American experience and other cultures through conversation, stories, productions and publications. 

Looking ahead, Overby looks to groom successors that will carry forward the spirit and production of the tribute and ceremony for years to come.  He sees this as an opportunity to “give others the chance to put their signature on the event for future generations and have the license and support that allows them to develop the skills necessary” to produce an event of this importance to the community.  

As a prominent, internationally recognized ethnomusicologist and scholar, Overby plans to continue his research as well as guest lecture with Smithsonian Journeys.  He recently presented on the African American experience in Paris after World War II.  You can catch him every Saturday evening on The Road To Higher Ground on WPR.  

About the author: By Deborah Biddle, Founder and Chief Consultant, The People Company Consulting Group.