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Celebrate MLK Day at MPL

By Chris Murphy on Jan 9, 2023 8:00 AM

In 2023 Milwaukee Public Library will again open its doors for a live celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day with the theme United in Growth, Rooted in Community. Activities throughout the day will include arts and crafts, a Communi-Tree mural presented by the MPL Teen Advisory Board, and a chance to register or update voter registration in time for spring elections.

City Librarian Joan Johnson will be joined by County Executive David Crowley, Mayor Cavalier Johnson, and Ald. Milele Coggs in inviting everyone to enjoy live performances of dance, music, and trivia. Special guest Mario “The Poet” Willis – Milwaukee’s 2022-2024 Poet Laureate – will perform poetry at 2 p.m. A complete list of performances and activities is available on the library’s website at The website includes booklists, activities, and the list of programming for the day that can be printed out.

The Milwaukee Public Library first began a community-wide celebration of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in 1988 by inviting volunteers to read to children about Dr. King and those like him who dedicated their lives to the message of peace, harmony, and self-empowerment. Volunteers from the community were assigned to classes throughout the city. Library staff matched volunteers with schools in their neighborhoods.

A January 1990 issue of the Milwaukee Reader reported on the event listing more than 650 volunteers who visited more than 91 public, parochial, and private schools. Volunteers that year included CEOS, retirees, homemakers, workers from banks, colleges, hospitals, county and city departments, attorneys, doctors and secretaries – and local authors.


  “The MLK Read-In was always one of my favorite January events,” said local author and historian John Gurda. “It gave me a chance to visit MPS classrooms (including, usually, all three of my children's), read age-appropriate books about the struggle for social justice, and share Dr. King's message, which is always in season.” At left are photos of Joyce Mallory (top), at that time a member of the MPS Board of Directors and MPL's Board of Trustees reading to a class at 31st Street School, and southside businessman and community leader Henry Wojcik (bottom) reading to a class at St. Veronica's School.




“Share the Dream” was introduced by the library in 2001. During this two-week-long celebration,  teachers and families were invited to bring children to their local library for special programs and activities. Throughout the next several years, those programs included poetry workshops, guest speakers, and special book displays. At right, former Mayor Tom Barrett reads to children gathered at Central Library's Betty Brinn Children's Room.

In 2009 the Milwaukee Public Library Board of Trustees opened the Martin Luther King Branch Library on Martin Luther King Day in order to celebrate its namesake on his special day. On January 19, 2009, two programs were scheduled, a teen literacy program sponsored by the Upsilon Mu Omega chapter, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., and a storytelling and drums program sponsored by Nzingha Publishing Company which featured local authors.

The Martin Luther King Branch Library continued to host activities on Martin Luther King Day for the next six years. Then, in 2015, The Martin Luther King Day Celebration was expanded to include activities throughout the day with live programming in the afternoon. 

The successful combination of activities, community partners, and live performances offered a vibrant and varied day of celebration from 2016 to 2020 – until the pandemic hit. Not to be daunted, library staff turned on a dime in 2021 and put together a virtual celebration that included trivia with members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity (pictured at left in 2018), art and video challenges, and guest speakers Charly Palmer, Daphne Barbee-Wooten and Terrence Roberts.

When the pandemic kept the library’s doors closed yet again in 2022, Ko-Thi Dance Company and the Village Drum Company offered virtual performances, and Clayborn Benson of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society hosted a community panel that shared memories of personal experiences with Dr. King. Another panel discussion with Milwaukee Black entrepreneurs was hosted by Ayrton Bryan of MKE Black. (Ton Ko-Thi performers pictured at left during a 2020 performance.)

With its return to a live celebration in 2023, Martin Luther King Branch Library looks forward to hosting a wide array of performers and community leaders in celebrating the theme United in Growth, Rooted in Community. "This year's celebration will be even more notable as it marks the last Martin Luther King Day we'll recognize in this building," said City Librarian Joan Johnson. "This year we begin construction on the new Martin Luther King Branch Library. We hope everyone will join us in celebrating the legacy of Dr. King along with the commitment of MPL service to this neighborhood."

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