The Missoula community celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day for the 25th year in a row with a series of events commemorating the legacy of King and the civil rights movement. The events featured speakers who highlighted ongoing social activism, including work being done to combat the missing and murdered indigenous women epidemic and environmental injustice.
With help from sponsors that included the University of Montana, the Missoula MLK Day Planning Committee presented a film, a youth rally and a march to a local church for the community celebration.
“This is one of the great things about the community of Missoula, and it is why we feel so fortunate here at the University of Montana to be a part of a great community,” said UM President Seth Bodnar, who attended the community celebration.
The evening began with a viewing of the film “Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock” at the Roxy. The film documented the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s peaceful resistance to the federal government's plan to construct an oil pipeline through their land.
President Obama halted construction of the pipeline near the end of his term, but President Trump lifted the hold as soon as he came into office in 2016. The pipeline has been operating since June, 2017.
Tobin Shearer, Director of the African American Studies program and a history professor at UM, helped to organize all the events. He was also one of many who attended the film Monday.
“The house was packed,” Shearer said. “It was a very moving film trying to get people to make connections between racial and environmental justice.”
After the film, attendees participated in a youth rally. The rally featured Missoula students of various ages who spoke about race and environmental justice.
Valeria Miranda, a University of Montana junior studying political science, was called to speak about her experiences with race growing up and explain what MLK day meant to her. “His legacy should be something we magnify as we fight against the white supremacy that is so very prevalent in our community today,” she said.
The series of events continued after the rally, as a march for justice moved the film-goers from the Roxy to a community celebration at St. Anthony Parish.
At the community celebration, keynote speaker Rabbi Laurie Franklin spoke about the life and legacy of Dr. King. She said the civil rights movement set the precedent for the fight against other social issues, including antisemitism. She currently serves Congregation Har Shalom and belongs to several community groups within the Missoula community, including the Montana Human Rights Network.
Speaker Murray Price, who is the administrative liaison for the Black Student Union and Support for Students of African Descent, gave a quick history of MLK Day in Missoula and Montana as well. He noted that some senators were reluctant to acknowledge the holiday in Montana. He also acknowledged locals, some in attendance, who started this celebration in Missoula and continue to run it today.
The celebration also consisted of two musical performances and a presentation by the annual youth art and essay contest winners. A Ronan high schooler, Grace Sutherland, won second place in the high school essay contest with a letter to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. She presented her piece with a red hand print, a symbol of the movement, painted across her mouth.
The K-2 essay contest winner, Chance Sweeney, garnered a laugh from the crowd with his poem that said hate is bad, comparing it to vegetables, especially spinach.
The celebration convened with an invitation to a dinner and social, which followed the celebration.
“Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a day for me not so much to celebrate service or volunteerism, but rather to celebrate a vision for social justice that challenges people to move beyond the status quo and create an anti-racist society rather than a racist society,” Shearer said.