Annual Martin Luther King Jr. event to highlight public education

Published 9:00 pm Friday, January 13, 2023

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The annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration is Monday at Riverland Community College.

This year’s theme is public education. To that effect, Albert Lea Area Schools Superintendent Ron Wagner will serve as keynote speaker.

“We thought about what we want to focus on, and we thought, ‘Boy, public education,’” said Peace and Justice committee member Mary Hinnenkamp. “If we’re talking about democracy and equality and opportunity, which is what King stood for, public education certainly is the route.

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“And who should know more about it in our community then the leader of public education in our community.”

Two high school students will also receive scholarships at the event.

“It’s been as few as one, as many as three or four,” she said. “I think depending on how many applicants and how compelling they are and maybe even how much money they have.”

Planning for the celebration started over the fall, and the committee focuses on a particular issue or theme, including immigration or peace.

“It’s the kinds of things that King stood for,” Hinnenkamp said. Last year’s theme was, “Injustice Anywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere.”

The committee selects a keynote speaker to focus on the selected issue and asks the school district to have students perform, whether that’s an elementary, middle school or high school choir.

“It’s just sort of a celebration of his life, but then there’s some meat there in the way of the keynote speech talking about a particular issue that’s relevant right now,” Hinnenkamp said.

The free gathering will start at 5 p.m. at Riverland Community College with pizza, cider and live music. According to Hinnenkamp, the event draws anywhere from 50 to 200 people.

“The weather is part of it, how interested the people are on the particular topic can be part of it, so the crowd can vary,” Hinnenkamp said. “When we first started doing it, it was a breakfast and then we really seemed to get a lot of people. But it was always the same people.”

To attract a different kind of audience, they moved it to the evening.

“We always try to have a lot of kids there,” said Tom Hinnenkamp.

It’s his hope that youth will take the celebration forward and continue it.

“When we first decided to put this together they happened up in the Cities, up in the metro area, and had to go up there for them,” he said. “We just wanted one locally, and we could do it the best we could do.”

The actual hour-long program starts at 5:30 p.m. This will be the 35th year for the MLK event.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for people to celebrate what’s good about our country,” Mary Hinnenkamp said. “What’s good about our community, that we are a community that really strives for everyone to have a great opportunity, and I think that’s one of the reasons we settled on the topic of public schools.

“What better venue is there for students to — no matter what their backgrounds — to do well and be successful.”