Martin Luther King Day7

People joined hands to sing  “We Shall Overcome” at a tribute honoring civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King Jr. at the State Capitol last year.

M.P. KING — State Journal

Thomas Steele knows everything about the Capitol — the 65-year-old retired state worker spent his career painting it from basement to rotunda — and he began Monday's Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration by marching onto the second-floor rotunda stage with other African-American Masons dressed in black tuxedoes and gold-fringed sashes, an annual tradition for them.

Steffi Greiner and Petra Amann know nothing about it — they arrived last week as Austrian exchange students at UW-Madison and watched from a third-floor balcony. 

"We know about his famous speech," Greiner said of King, "and we want to learn more."

They gathered along with a couple hundred others, from Gov. Scott Walker to infants, at the state's 31st annual event. The Capitol ceremony was followed by a Madison and Dane County celebration Monday night featuring a keynote speech by journalist and civil-rights advocate Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

The Capitol crowd was treated to an afternoon of bagpipers, swaying choirs and a mariachi band there to honor the slain civil-rights leader's memory. The pageantry came with a call to action meant to reignite King's activism.

"This (prison) system is not going down without a fight," said keynote speaker Michelle Alexander, an Ohio State University law professor who just published a book comparing the country's racial disparity in prison to the Jim Crow laws that ignited the Civil Rights movement.

The speech gave the event, the longest-running statehouse celebration of King in the nation, an edge and earned Alexander a raucous standing ovation. Madison bus drivers Andrea Woods and Carl Franklin nodded in approval. 

"We're not going to sit still and make no improvements," Franklin said. "We have lots of work to do."

Franklin goes to the event every year, while Woods attended for the first time after getting a call to action of another sort. 

"My 22-year-old daughter came to my room this morning and said, 'Mom, who's Martin Luther King?'" the Sun Prairie resident said, incredulous. "That's why we came."

Natalia Hernandez, a 15-year-old from Milwaukee, played viola with the Latino Arts Strings group while dressed in a white ruffled blouse and flowing black skirt. It was her first time attending the event but she said she's long been a student of King's legacy. 

"He fought for the right to be the same as everybody else," she said backstage shortly before performing.

Hernandez and the band played a spirited set of songs, at times rousing the crowd and at other times hushing it silent.

The variety of musical performances impressed the Austrian exchange students.

"It's amazing how they give everybody the same feeling at the same time," Amann said. "It helps us forget the everyday stress."