‘He gave us hope’: Civil rights activist shares story with Madison, hopes to keep MLK legacy alive

MADISON, Wis. – As part of observing Martin Luther King Jr. Day, activists are hoping to carry on his legacy to tackle the issues of today.

On Monday night, the Madison community honored King at the 35th Madison and Dane County King Holiday Observance at the Overture Center.

“He made a big change,” student Annaria Goodwin said. “He made everything possible for us today.”

“If he didn’t do this, we probably wouldn’t be here right now,” student Kalel Brown said.

The group of students attending the event looked forward to hearing more about the civil rights movement.

“We can learn more about what they went through and the things they did,” Azalea Rios said. “I think that’s good for everybody to learn.”

The students, community leaders and other event attendees had the chance to hear directly from keynote speaker Joyce Ann Ladner of Mississippi, who was on the front lines of many civil rights protests in the 1960s.

“I used to never talk about my involvement,” Ladner said. “The older I get, the more I see that young people especially want you to talk about it.”

As a part of her activism, Ladner was expelled from college for organizing a civil rights protest and jailed for trying to integrate a church. She also helped organize a NAACP Youth Chapter in her hometown and was involved in lunch counter sit-ins and voter registration campaigns.

Along the way, she also met King several times.

“Legacies are built brick by brick. He had a lot of bricks,” Ladner said. “He was very ordinary, friendly, warm, totally unpretentious. He gave us hope.”

Ladner still carries that hope for a better future.

“Civil rights issues today are the same in some ways as they were then,” she said, pointing to concerns of hers including voter rights, police brutality and wealth disparity.

“There’s still a lot of stuff to be done, but it’s good to enjoy the milestone we made, how far we’ve come from how it was back in the day,” Rios said.

When looking at the young people gathered at Monday night’s observance, Ladner believes King’s legacy will be carried forward in good hands.

“It gives me a tremendous amount of hope. I’m just excited that there’s another generation that has picked up the gauntlet and decided they need to embrace a cause,” Ladner said. “They remind me in many ways of myself at that age.”

Ladner is also a sociologist and published author of the book “Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: The Black Woman.”

The holiday observance was hosted by The Martin Luther King, Jr. Coalition of Madison & Dane County.