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MLK Day celebration to feature members of the Little Rock Nine

In a  black and white photo, The Little Rock Nine are escorted up the stairs leading into Central High School under the protection of the 101st Airborne.
United States Army
Soldiers of the U.S. Army escorted members of the Little Rock Nine into Central High School in 1957.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is this Monday.

This year, the Dr. Martin Luther King Commission of Mid-Michigan's annual celebration will feature members of the Little Rock Nine as guest speakers.

65 years ago, the Black students enrolled in a formerly all-white school in Arkansas, following the Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The commission's Day of Celebration special airs at 7 p.m. on Monday on WILX TV-10 and WLNS TV-6.

The discussion with Little Rock Nine members, Ernest Green, Carlotta Lanier, Minnijean Brown-Trickey and Terrence Roberts will be moderated by Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist II.

WKAR's Sophia Saliby spoke to Commission Chair Elaine Hardy about the event.

Interview Highlights

On the theme of this year's event

I think that it is like so many of the writings of Dr. King, we can find meaning for them today. With us grappling as a nation with issues around voting rights and access to the polls and policing and housing, we have to ask ourselves if this is the moral place that we want to be in as a country. Or if as Dr. King suggested that justice helps us to bring forth a new moral climate. And I think that it is fitting for today.

On why members of the Little Rock Nine were selected as featured guests at this year's event

What has struck me is that they volunteered to do it as teenagers. Some having an idea of the significance of what they were doing. But others just thinking, "you know what? I'm going to go to my neighborhood high school." And then the world turned upside down for them, right? And that we began having this discussion about what segregation really was in this country and how harmful it has been for us as a nation.

On what it's been like to be unable to gather in person for two years for the celebration

There is no replacing the energy in that space at the Lansing Center when we're gathered with 2000 or so of our closest friends. It is a time where you get an opportunity to not only feel but see the community come together, people of all ages, all genders, all faiths, all races.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: Martin Luther King Jr. Day is this Monday.

And this year, the Dr. Martin Luther King Commission of Mid-Michigan's annual celebration will feature members of the Little Rock Nine as guest speakers.

65 years ago, the Black students enrolled in a formerly all-white school in Arkansas, following the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling.

Elaine Hardy is the chair of the commission. Thank you for joining me.

Elaine Hardy: Thank you so much for having me, Sophia.

Saliby: This year's theme is "In the long run, justice finally must spring from a new moral climate."

The phrase is taken from a letter written by Martin Luther King Jr. to President Eisenhower requesting federal assistance with school integration in Arkansas. Can you tell me what the theme means to you?

Hardy: I think that it is like so many of the writings of Dr. King, we can find meaning for them today. With us grappling as a nation with issues around voting rights and access to the polls and policing and housing, we have to ask ourselves if this is the moral place that we want to be in as a country. Or if as Dr. King suggested that justice helps us to bring forth a new moral climate. And I think that it is fitting for today.

For me, as an American, that I need to be cognizant of other Americans who may not have a voice in our democracy, who may be in situations where they are marginalized, and we have to be that voice and that place of safety for them.

And for today, it means that, for me, as an American, that I need to be cognizant of other Americans who may not have a voice in our democracy, who may be in situations where they are marginalized, and we have to be that voice and that place of safety for them and to create a society where the better angels of ourselves is the prevalent thing.

Saliby: Four members of the Little Rock Nine will speak during this year's day of celebration. Why were they selected as the featured guests?

Hardy: So you know, it's my hope to have all eight of the living Little Rock Nine, and my hope is that we'll able to bring them to the community at some point later this summer to continue to pay tribute to them. I think that it gets lost on people that these were kids, 14,15, 16-year-old kids, and the eyes of the entire world were on them when they walked through the doors or tried to walk through the doors of Little Rock's Central High School.

What has struck me is that they volunteered to do it as teenagers. Some having an idea of the significance of what they were doing. But others just thinking, "you know what? I'm going to go to my neighborhood high school." And then the world turned upside down for them, right?

And that we began having this discussion about what segregation really was in this country and how harmful it has been for us as a nation.

Saliby: Thinking about the legacy of the Little Rock Nine, briefly, what initiatives does the commission do to promote learning and education?

Hardy: Well, you know, we, during the annual day of celebration support a huge region-wide essay and scholarship contest that we open to middle and high schoolers throughout this entire region. And we do that based on a theme that we select as a commission to help that generation begin to think about issues related to civil rights and issues related to us building that beloved community that Dr. King talked about. And so that's one of the ways that we do.

We really try to make certain that all of the activities that the commission does is inclusive of youth and really trying to foster in that generation a sense of the importance of the work of civil rights that needs to continue today.

We also help support educational goals through a program called Y Achievers that we are partnering with the YMCA of Lansing, and we've been doing that for over a decade in helping students have access to college programs and supporting an annual college tour that they do.

We really try to make certain that all of the activities that the commission does is inclusive of youth and really trying to foster in that generation a sense of the importance of the work of civil rights that needs to continue today.

Saliby: The celebration is usually a big luncheon. This is the second year the event has instead been broadcast as a special due to the pandemic. When it does become safer for people to gather. Do you plan to continue with the broadcast part of this to increase reach?

Hardy: You know, that's a matter that we are discussing as a commission. I mean, there is no replacing the energy in that space at the Lansing Center when we're gathered with 2000 or so of our closest friends. It is a time where you get an opportunity to not only feel but see the community come together, people of all ages, all genders, all faiths, all races.

The fact that we have the opportunity to reach tens of thousands of people with Dr. King's message of justice and to talk to people about our ability as a collective humanity to build this beloved community, I don't think that we can just not pay attention to that.

It is just an amazing, incredible time in our community, so that's irreplaceable. But the fact that we have the opportunity to reach tens of thousands of people with Dr. King's message of justice and to talk to people about our ability as a collective humanity to build this beloved community, I don't think that we can just not pay attention to that.

So, we're excited about the broadcast, but we certainly miss the in-person. And we'll continue to have discussions about whether or not it's something that will continue in years to come.

Saliby: Elaine Hardy is the chair of the Dr. Martin Luther King Commission of Mid-Michigan. Thank you for being here.

Hardy: It was my pleasure, Sophia. Thank you for having me.

Saliby: The commission's Day of Celebration special airs at 7 p.m. on Monday on WILX TV-10 and WLNS TV-6.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Sophia Saliby is the local producer and host of All Things Considered, airing 4pm-7pm weekdays on 90.5 FM WKAR.
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