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MLK Day celebrations, service opportunities around Milwaukee

Graphic by Jen Ellis

Since 1986, the federal holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been held on the third Monday of January, which this year happens to be Dr. King’s actual birthday.

For decades, Milwaukee has held celebrations to honor him (even before the holiday was established), with the event at Marcus Performing Arts Center being one of the longest running. But MLK Day is also the only federal holiday designated as a National Day of Service. That happened officially in 1994, when legislation signed into law encouraged Americans to perform volunteer service in Dr. King’s honor.

Whether you’re looking for something celebratory or more service-oriented (or both), Milwaukee has plenty of opportunities available. Just make sure staying warm is part of your plans, whatever you end up choosing.


Marcus Performing Arts Center

It’s the 40th installment of this birthday celebration and Milwaukee tradition, which started in 1984 and shines a light on younger members of our community who participate in student contests to interpret Dr. King’s words through speech, writing and the arts. The winners get an opportunity to present their efforts at the 4 p.m. presentation, which will be immediately followed by a free concert featuring Anthony McGahee and Praise Motivated Choir.

MLK Community Center

The center at 1531 W. Vliet St. and the Bronzeville Arts Ensemble will host “Words Seldom Spoken — A Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” that features music, dance and spoken word, followed by an open house. The program starts at noon, with the open house beginning at 1:30 p.m.

YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee

The organization’s 27th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration will take place at the Potawatomi Casino Hotel Event Center, with registration and networking starting at 7 a.m., followed by a program and breakfast at 8 a.m., and a panel discussion at 9 a.m.

U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley will all be in attendance at the event, which will include a variety of speakers and performances. Registration is $60 per person ($45 for those from nonprofit organizations) and can be completed via the link on the event webpage.

In addition, the YMCA has lined up an opportunity to go even deeper on Dr. King’s legacy of advocacy via its 2024 Deliberate Dialogues series. Local leaders and professionals will lead three noontime talks around the topics of “Empowering Future Leaders” (Jan. 16), “Driving Community Health” (Jan. 17) and “Building a Quality Workforce.” (Jan. 18). All three will take place on Zoom, and you can register now via the linked titles.

United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County

The local arm of the organization serving communities around the world has a couple suggestions for how to make a positive impact on people here in the Milwaukee area. At 10 a.m. Monday, they’re welcoming volunteers to the Waukesha County Business Alliance to pack kits with personal hygiene items, as well as items for the house and home. The event is for anyone ages 5 and up, and is located at 2717 N. Grandview Blvd. in Waukesha (register here).

If you can’t make it out to Waukesha, they’re also inviting people to donate diapers (sizes: newborn through 6) and baby wipes at both of their offices. You can drop off the items at the Milwaukee location (225 W. Vine St.) and in Waukesha (2717 N. Grandview Blvd., Suite 102). There’s also a digital option you can use by visiting the United Way Diaper Drive wish list.

Dr. Martin Luther King Justice Coalition

This event at St. Francis of Assisi Church (1927 N. Vel Phillips Ave.) seeks to honor Dr. King’s legacy by recognizing three organization’s utilizing nonviolent means to work for peace in Israel and Palestine: Milwaukee Jewish Voice for Peace, Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition, and UWM and MU Students for Palestine. The program starting at 1 p.m. also includes reflections from people who personally knew or worked with Dr. King and will be followed by a 2:30 p.m. march to Dr. King’s statue on the 1700 block of King Drive.

Marquette University’s Arrupe Center

Dedicated to community service and social responsibility, the Arrupe Center will host a “Connect and Serve” event at the Tony and Lucille Weasler Auditorium located at 1506 W. Wisconsin Ave. As the name suggests, the event is a chance to meet other service-minded people while also participating in activities like card making, blood donation and creating care kits. The center also mentions there will be coffee, tea and hot cocoa on hand to shake off the cold.

Things get started at 8:30 a.m. with a quick presentation, and activities will take place in Alumni Memorial Union through 4:30 p.m.

Milwaukee Public Museum

Museum educators will be on hand from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. as visitors get the opportunity to explore the Watson House in the Streets of Old Milwaukee. The display is dedicated to Sully and Susanna Watson, pioneers from the city’s past who arrived here in 1850 and established a legacy that included their great-granddaughter Mabel Raimey, Wisconsin’s first black female attorney. The museum purchased family photos and documents more than 30 years ago and established this exhibit, which is designed to represent the couple’s life during that era.

Grohmann Museum at MSOE

Admission is free Monday as the museum located on the corner of Broadway and State downtown invites families for a Kids’ Art Day from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Drop-in art activities in the stART Lab on the lower level include collages inspired by American artist Romare Bearden, coloring pages and a collaborative writing project.