About 400 people came out to Appleton East High School to celebrate the school district’s first observance of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, and many then went on to service projects around the city.
About two dozen local organizations and businesses sponsored the event and had booths and displays lining the hallways.
The event began with a march around the interior of the school, since the weather was too cold for the planned outdoor march. Attendees then filed into the school’s auditorium, which filled to standing-room capacity. North High STAR Steppers and dancer Destiny Daniels got the crowd excited with performances before Appleton Area School District Superintendent Judy Baseman delivered opening remarks.
City of Appleton Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator Karen Nelson referenced the title of Martin Luther King’s 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?
“Clearly, Appleton chooses community,” she said.
She said that Appleton was the first Wisconsin city to join the Dignity and Respect Campaign one year ago with 113 taking the Dignity and Respect Pledge to “do my part to make our world a better place by treating everyone with dignity and respect.” A year later, Nelson said, more than 2,200 people have signed.
Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna became emotional when he took the stage and looked out over the diverse audience.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice cracking. “It’s just a beautiful sight.”
He said it was important for the community to continue its commitment to the dignity of all of its members.
“It takes practice,” he said. “We have to practice it every day. It takes a conscious effort. That what this day is about. Hopefully that’s what every day should be about.”
Pastor Alvin Dupree, an Appleton school board member, echoed that sentiment in his remarks.
“I want to compel you not to only make it a day of service but a life of service,” Dupree said.
Dupree was one of the driving forces behind the event, helping to gather more than 2,000 signatures to have the day officially recognized by the district.
After the performances and speeches, attendees stood in a long line to sample soul food catered by Cozzy Corner, then boarded buses to local nonprofits like Fox Valley Humane Association, Obeida Heights senior apartments, Harbor House and more.
Attendees and community members appreciated the spirit of the event.
“It means a lot because we usually don’t have the day off,” said Appleton North senior and Black Student Union member Divine Dupree. “Usually you stay in school and do nothing. But to do this and bring the community together and do the stuff that MLK wanted to do on a day off means a lot to African American students and the non-African American students.”
“It’s an educational opportunity for the students and community to learn more about Dr Martin Luther King Jr and be able to learn about him here as opposed to going to an outside community,” said Dr. Sabrina Robins, who, along with Dr. Bola Delano-Oriaran, hosted a pop-up history exhibit detailing Appleton’s sometimes fraught history with race. Robins said she’s “extremely pleased” with the turnout.
But, she said, “I’m not surprised. The school district does a good job of outreach and partnering with various stakeholders within the community. I am especially proud of the youth representation. It’s a day on and not a day off and they have shown up and have been totally engaged in the entire program.”