MLK Day celebration highlights the struggles of Black communities through the arts

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DeAnn Harper, of Gahanna, waves silk flags while performing with the Leap of Faith Dance Company during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at the Ohio History Center Monday.
DeAnn Harper, of Gahanna, waves silk flags while performing with the Leap of Faith Dance Company during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at the Ohio History Center Monday.

Greater Columbus residents gathered at the Ohio History Connection Monday to explore and celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

The "MLK Day Open House Celebration," a two-hour program that started at noon, featured about a dozen dance, music, spoken word and theater performances to pay tribute to King’s life and showcase Black artists’ contributions to America’s culture and history.

“Art is transformative, and art helps heal,” said Jevon Collins, the performing arts director at the King Arts Complex.

The free community event was organized by the King Arts Complex, the community group based in Columbus’ Near East Side that aims to connect residents through the arts.

The annual tradition has been ongoing for more than three decades since the complex was established in 1987, Collins said, adding that this was his 17th MLK Day event at the complex.

“There’s been so much pain that people in the African American community have gone through. Through music, dance, spoken words, it helps heal and it helps document for future generations the challenges we’re going through," Collins said.

MLK Day celebration highlights Black communities' struggles through art

The program began with a modern dance number called “The Battle is Not Yours” by performers from the Leap of Faith Dance Studio.

With about 100 children and adult students, the Columbus-based studio hopes to convey Black communities’ struggles and resiliency through dance, according to Crystal Hall-Boyce, the owner and artistic director of Leap of Faith.

Ohio Sen. Hearcel Craig (D-Columbus) delivers the keynote address during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at the Ohio History Center Monday. Craig said remembering King's work and impact is especially important given the pressing political challenges facing the nation now.
Ohio Sen. Hearcel Craig (D-Columbus) delivers the keynote address during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at the Ohio History Center Monday. Craig said remembering King's work and impact is especially important given the pressing political challenges facing the nation now.

“With the arts, we’re able to express our pain and our emotions, and reach out to people and touch people without saying a single word,” Hall-Boyce said. “We’re here today because Dr. King’s vision – togetherness and standing for what’s right – is also what our studio stands for.”

Remembering King’s work is especially crucial now given the pressing political challenges that America faces today, according to Sen. Hearcel Craig, the event’s keynote speaker.

“Today, as in the life of Dr. King, we’re faced with significant challenges, among these are the assault on voting rights, access to affordable quality education, housing and health care for all,” Craig said. “And certainly, there's a rise in vitriolic, vicious rhetoric and blatantly pervasive bigotry in criminal justice reform.”

The audience listens as Ohio Sen. Hearcel Craig, not pictured, gives the keynote address during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event Monday at the Ohio History Center. Craig told the group that it's time to make a recommitment to Dr. King's vision.
The audience listens as Ohio Sen. Hearcel Craig, not pictured, gives the keynote address during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event Monday at the Ohio History Center. Craig told the group that it's time to make a recommitment to Dr. King's vision.

“Now is our opportunity for a recommitment to the vision of Dr. King,” he continued. “We do this by fighting for policies that ensure justice and equality and building a ladder of opportunity for all families and children.”

As a part of its Martin Luther King Jr. Day program, the Ohio History Connection also set up five service stations for children to assemble personal-care kits for those in need, make snack bags for unhoused residents, among other activities to contribute to the community in honor of King.

A person sits in the audience during the "MLK Day Open House Celebration" at the Ohio History Center Monday. The program featured dance, music, spoken word and theater performances to honor Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy.
A person sits in the audience during the "MLK Day Open House Celebration" at the Ohio History Center Monday. The program featured dance, music, spoken word and theater performances to honor Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy.

Leah Bower, a 39-year-old resident on the city’s North Side, brought her two children, age 9 and 12, to the museum on Monday to participate in the service activities. The family had driven to Walmart earlier that morning to purchase sweatpants, razors, and other items for the kids to put together as donations kits.

“Sometimes it’s tricky with younger kids to let them get involved in a meaningful way besides just talking about, for example, why Dr. King’s work was so important,” Bower said. “This is a way for them to do something for the community, and this will then help facilitate those conversations so they can understand the history and understand how they can be allies.”

Annual MLK breakfast took place virtually this year

Besides the open house celebration at the Ohio History Connection, a number of other Martin Luther King Jr. Day events were held across Greater Columbus.

At the annual Martin Luther King breakfast, which was virtual this year, city, state and federal officials talked about progress made and dreams yet unrealized. The program was based on King's "How Long, Not Long" speech after the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

Katrina Odili, of Westerville, performs with the Eurban Arts Theatre Company during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at the Ohio History Center.
Katrina Odili, of Westerville, performs with the Eurban Arts Theatre Company during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at the Ohio History Center.

U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty said that on that day, King "spoke to a pained and frustrated nation" where work still remains to fully realize King's vision.

"That's why I was pepper sprayed in the streets of my own district for standing up for my community," Beatty said, referring to the protests after George Floyd's death in 2020 where she was pepper sprayed by Columbus Police.

Three students presented speeches, including Linden Young, a senior at Franklin Heights High School. He talked about the need for unity.

"We as humans should look at each other as siblings, not rivals," he said. "This is what it means to be your brother's keeper."

Ohio State University President Kristina Johnson, this year's keynote speaker, noted the racial disparities in Ohio in terms of education, wealth and health. She said educational institutions, including Ohio State, need to play a key role in improving the lives of all people and shrinking those gaps.

"Education is not peripheral to the question of social justice. We are at the center of it," she said.

She talked about Ohio State's program, which will be piloted this fall, to help undergraduate students obtain a degree debt-free. The effort will include government aid as well as degree-related internship opportunities.

"We truly can be what Dr. King called the beloved community," she said.

Rodney Riley, of Columbus, performs as part of the Leap of Faith Dance Company’s performance during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at the Ohio History Center Monday.
Rodney Riley, of Columbus, performs as part of the Leap of Faith Dance Company’s performance during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at the Ohio History Center Monday.

Yilun Cheng is a Report for America corps member and covers immigration issues for the Dispatch. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation at https://bit.ly/3fNsGaZ.

ycheng@dispatch.com

@ChengYilun

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Ohio History Connection hosts this year's MLK Day celebration

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