Photos by Elizabeth Vorndran

Representatives from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee Muslim Student Association (center) accept the MLK Social Justice Award from organizing committee members Lauren Cross (left) and Jarret English (right).

If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would call for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, and seek justice for Palestinians, say those who knew him personally.

“He would say violence does not solve any problem, that violence begets violence and revenge begets revenge,” said Rev. Joe Ellwanger of Milwaukee, who worked with Dr. King. “The answer to the tensions between Palestine and Israel cannot be solved militarily. They have to be decided by negotiation with the lens of justice for both sides.

“Even though Dr. King did support the right of Israel to exist, he did not and would not support Israel’s colonial method of taking land away from the Palestinians,” he said.

Ellwanger spoke Jan. 15 at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Milwaukee among a panel of elders who knew and worked with Dr. King. The panel discussion was part of Milwaukee Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Justice Coalition’s 23rd celebration of King’s birthday.

Rev. Joseph Ellwanger (second from left) worked with Dr. King in the 1960s on protests in Birmingham and the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. He spoke with panelists Reuben Harpole, Joyce Ellwanger and Peggy Kendrigan.

Ellwanger, a retired Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastor, served an all-Black congregation in Birmingham, Alabama from 1958 to 1967. (He later served a racially integrated congregation in Milwaukee until his retirement in 2001.) 

In 1963, Ellwanger worked with King on the Central Committee of the Birmingham Demonstrations carried out by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and in 1965 on the voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama.

“I led a march of 72 white Alabamians in solidarity with the Voting Rights Movement on the day before Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965,” Ellwanger explained, “and then participated in the last stage of the Selma to Montgomery March.” 

At the ceremony, the coalition presented its Social Justice Award to five Milwaukee organizations working for peace and justice in Palestine: Milwaukee Muslim Women’s CoalitionJewish Voice for Peace-MilwaukeeStudents for Justice in Palestine-University of Milwaukee Chapter, UWM’s Muslim Student Association and Students for a Democratic Society-Milwaukee.

Program organizing committee members Jarret English and Lauryn Cross served as emcees.

Remember the radical MLK

The purpose of Milwaukee Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Justice Coalition’s annual ceremony is to remember the radical Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said coalition co-founder Julie Enslow of Shorewood. 

“It’s the more radical King we are honoring, the King who was murdered because he was against the war in Vietnam, and against racism, poverty and materialism in this country,” she said last week in an interview with the Wisconsin Muslim Journal. His radical views contributed to King being among the most-hated people in America, according to a 1968 Harris poll. 

“My partner George Martin, our friend Brian Verdin and I founded this coalition back in 2001 because we felt the messages of Dr. King had become so watered down after his birthday became a government-sanctioned holiday. It was the ‘I Have a Dream’ King that was celebrated. Nobody talked about King’s message on what he called the ‘great evils’ of racism, extreme materialism and militarism.

“Dr. King is too important a revolutionary figure to be made so nice and palatable.”

Panelists Reuben Harpole, Rev. Joseph and Joyce Ellwanger, Brian Verdin (standing) and Peggy Kendrigan shared thoughts about how Dr. King would respond to Israel’s war in Gaza.

Milwaukee Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Justice Coalition has grown to include 33 organizations today. They are: Casa Maria Catholic Worker, Veterans for Peace, Greater Milwaukee Green Party, Injured Workers Center, Peace Action Wisconsin, Voces de la Frontera, Summer of Peace, Welfare Warriors, Milwaukee Branch Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Progressive Democrats of America in Milwaukee County, WAVE (Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort), Marquette University Center for Peacemaking, Milwaukee Justice Coalition, Wisconsin Conference of Branches NAACP, 350 Milwaukee, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Fight For 15, St. Francis Church, Catholics for Peace and Justice, Riverwest Neighborhood Association, Mothers for Justice, Rid Racism Milwaukee, Milwaukee Turners, True Skool, Central United Methodist Church, Urban Underground, We Got This, We Care Wisconsin, Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression, The Poor People’s Campaign, Milwaukee Anti-War Committee and the Milwaukee Coalition to Normalize Relations with Cuba.

For 23 years, the coalition has hosted a program on Dr. King’s birthday to “recognize elders in Milwaukee who knew, met or worked with Dr. King when he was alive and to recognize groups in the community who are working in the nonviolent spirit of Dr. King on issues of justice,” Enslow said.

The panel of elders at this year’s event “all agreed there is no question Dr. King would be speaking out loud and clear against the genocide in Gaza,” she added.

Despite frigid weather, about 200 people attended the ceremony. “In the past, it’s been standing-room only,” Enslow said. After the program, those gathered usually march to the Martin Luther King Jr. statue in the 1700 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, where people are invited to speak at an open mic, “but this year was just too cold so we canceled the march,” she said.

About 200 people attended the celebration of the radical Martin Luther King Jr. at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Milwaukee.

In his footsteps

“This year we wanted to recognize groups working to stop the genocide in Gaza,” Enslow said. “The groups we honored have taken the lead in large rallies and educational events. And, of all the events I have attended, I’ve never heard anything antisemitic. What they have said has been anti-Zionist, as well it should be, but nothing antisemitic at all.”

“The Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition has really stepped forward to help organize rallies and education events,” Enslow said. Likewise, Jewish Voice for Peace-Milwaukee “has played a leadership role in organizing, and its members always stand up front and speak at protests.”

Enslow said she was especially pleased to include student organizations among those recognized, including the University of Wisconsin’s Muslim Student Association, Students for Justice in Palestine and Students for a Democratic Society-Milwaukee. “Having elders speak about their experiences with Dr. King and young people working in his spirit was very meaningful,” she said. 

Receiving the award for MMWC, its founder Janan Najeeb took the opportunity to note the ceremony was taking place one day after the 100th day of Israel’s war on Gaza. “Let’s be clear. This is not a war between Hamas and Israel,” said Najeeb, a Palestinian American. “This is not a war between Gaza and Israel. This is the genocide of the Palestinian people.

Janan Najeeb spoke on behalf of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition.

“On this day, I want to commemorate the 100,000 Palestinian civilians, mainly women and children, who have either been massacred or injured or are missing. Yet, the president of the United States marked the day by crying for the Israeli hostages as if Palestinians don’t matter, as if they’re not human beings.”

Representatives from UWM’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (center) accept the MLK Justice Award from organizing committee members Lauryn Cross (left) and Jarret English (right).

Yet, Najeeb remains an optimist, she said. “The eyes of the world are now wide open. Unless you live under a rock, the entire world knows what is happening and Israel will eventually pay the moral price and self-disintegrate because injustice cannot continue.

“I also want to note the historical and moral stand of South Africa,” she said. “Like South Africans, Palestinians suffer from a system of racist apartheid, so their words matter … Don’t despair. Justice is just around the corner.”

Receiving the award for Jewish Voice for Peace-Milwaukee, its co-founder Jodi Melamed, Ph.D., said, “Zionism is not Judaism. Zionism is militarism; Zionism is racism; it is extreme materialism—the evils Dr. King spoke about. Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism.”

She called on Israel and the United States to “stop weaponizing antisemitism to kill Palestinians.”

Jodi Melamed accepts the MLK Justice Award for Jewish Voice for Peace – Milwaukee.

King’s lessons for today

“Dr. King famously said, ‘War is not the answer,’” Ellwanger noted. “Exactly one year before he was assassinated, he delivered his famous speech at Riverside Church condemning the Vietnam War. In it, Dr. King delineated reasons for his opposition to the war, many of which could be applied to Israel’s military bombardment of Gaza.

“Israeli settlers in the West Bank, who just take over Palestinian farms, bulldozing their houses and olive orchards, is reminiscent of the way European settlers took over the land here in the United States and just kept pushing indigenous people onto reservations,” Ellwanger said in an interview. “King would not approve of the settlers who do this with impunity.

“Not all Israelis approve of this,” Ellwanger added. “The Zionists are the ones who say all the land of Palestine belongs to Israel.”

Brian Verdin (left) looks on as Julie Enslow (right) speaks at the 23rd Annual MLK Day Justice Celebration. Verdin, Enslow and Enslow’s late partner George Martin founded the coalition that organizes the program and award ceremony. 

At the ceremony, “we also read a statement Dr. King made about Palestine when he was alive, as reported by Mother Jones magazine,” Enslow said. It said:

“In the summer of 1967, King was planning a trip to Israel. But just before his planned arrival, Israel launched the Six-Day War against Egypt, Syria and Jordan, gaining territory and killing thousands. Israel would lay claim to the entirety of Jerusalem and seize control of the Gaza Strip, West Bank and the Sinai peninsula; eventually returning Sinai to Egypt after a peace treaty was signed in 1979

“This series of events would lead King to come under pressure to take a public stance on the Six-Day War. On June 18, 1967, on ABC Sunday’s Issues and Answers, King said:

‘… I think for the ultimate peace and security of the situation it will probably be necessary for Israel to give up this conquered territory because to hold on to it will only exacerbate the tensions and deepen the bitterness of the Arabs.’

“This powerful insight reveals King’s belief in what was key to achieving peace in the Middle East.”

Jamilah Arabiyat, president of the Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Enslow also noted King’s daughter Bernice recently posted a response on the social media platform X to comedian Amy Schumer, who on Oct. 30 posted video clip of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking in support of Israel and denouncing antisemitism.

Bernice King wrote:

Amy: Certainly, my father was against antisemitism, as am I. He also believed militarism (along with racism and poverty) to be among the interconnected Triple Evils. I am certain he would call for Israel’s bombing of Palestinians to cease, for hostages to be released and for us to work for true peace, which includes justice.

“He said, ‘Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.’ We have much to correct.”

Andre Lee Ellis

Jamie Kellicut, Community Engagement and Indigenous Affairs Director for H.I.R. Wellness with a group of students

Reuben Harpole

Joyce Ellwanger 

Singer Pansy William, saxophonist Mike Arndt and pianist David Nunley provided music for the event.