A hush fell on the rows of packed pews in Nichols Concert Hall as Mark George, president and chief executive of the Music Institute of Chicago, made his way to the microphone. Hundreds of people gathered to watch award-winning musicians and dancers perform Sunday afternoon in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I believe that building this program around the arts creates a platform,” George began. “A platform to listen.

The audience gives a standing ovation at the close of the event. Credit: Gina Castro

“It’s my hope today that we all listen very carefully to the music, to the spoken words, to seeing the movement and experiencing the visual art in the lobby. These are all small steps, very important steps that take us down the road to understanding.”

Tim Rhoze, Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre artistic director, and the Music Institute co-curated the list of seven performances for the 20th annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration. A visual arts exhibition, put together by artist Fran Joy, lined the walls of the lobby.

The audience stood and the gospel group MC4 performed Lift Every Voice and Sing, often called the Black National Anthem. Many in the audience smiled and sang along to the song written by James Weldon Johnson, an NAACP leader.

Remarks about the city’s historic reparations program were woven into the event. Mayor Daniel Biss referenced King’s efforts to remind his constituents that “wait” isn’t the response to injustice.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Biss said.

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“I think on this weekend, it’s important to remind ourselves about what’s in that letter from the Birmingham Jail [written by King] about those well-meaning white liberals who just hope you’re willing to wait a little bit longer. Robin Rue Simmons didn’t want to wait. We waited too long already. And the cost of delay is not a cost we’re willing to bear for one moment longer.”

Before coming to speak that Sunday afternoon, Claire McFarland Barber asked herself: “What would Dr. King think about Evanston’s reparations program?”

She’s a member of the Evanston Reparations Committee and serves on the board of the Reparations Stakeholder Authority of Evanston. The reparations program, established in 2019, is the first in the nation to pay reparations to local Black residents.

Tucker Wildes (left) and her mom Betty Ann Badger were glad that reparations were a part of the celebration. “The speakers did more than give speeches,” Wildes said. “It was a call to action.” Credit: Gina Castro

“Dr. King would be very happy, I’m sure,” McFarland Barber said. “And I know, I overstep to speak for him, but as I look out at this audience, and I see people of different ages, different races, I’m sure different faiths, different experiences.

“We’ve come together today in the celebration, and I think that’s amazing. I think it’s a statement of how far we’ve come. But we have a long way to go.”

There is a long road ahead for addressing the harm Black residents have experienced in the city and across the country, McFarland Barber explained. But in the words also quoted by King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The final performance seemed to carry the same tune of McFarland Barber’s speech. A Stone of Hope (Martin’s Song) cited the same quote. Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre and the Music Institute commissioned the song by Ephraim Champion specifically for this event.

The celebration left some guests feeling inspired.

“I’m so proud of Evanston” said Debra Rice, a Northwestern University graduate. “I think tonight was a remarkable tribute and demonstration of the past and ongoing work, and it’s just very heartfelt.”

Gina Castro

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the Evanston RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative...

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