ITHACA, N.Y. — Hundreds of people turned out for Ithaca’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, sharing a hearty meal and listening to music and a guest speaker to commemorate the vision of the Civil Rights leader.

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The event feeds between 200 and 400 people each year, depending on the weather, said Ellen Baer, who helped found the first celebration more than 20 years ago.

She said the event started while she was working at Cornell University, when she arranged with the school to have an event on MLK Day.

At the time, she said, the university was still open on the day and she convinced administrators to let people volunteer at the event as opposed to working on the day.

The first event was a success for the get-go bringing in 150 to 200 people, Baer said.

Audrey Cooper, a member of the MLK Celebration Committee, said the celebration begins being planned every year in October and meets about every three weeks until the event.

The result is about 40 volunteers working the day of to make the event happen, along with sponsors and organizers from the Greater Ithaca Activities Center,  Multicultural Resource Center, Center for Transformative Action, Cornell Public Service Center, GreenStar Cooperative Market, Ithaca College’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, Campus Life at Cornell University, Ithaca College’s Center for Student Leadership and Involvement, and Cornell Cooperative Extension of TC, and community members.

“Let’s become nuisances “

Guest speaker Russell Rickford, who specializes in the black radical tradition and black political culture after WWII, (Read more about Rickford here.) spoke about MLK’s mission and the work that still has to be done in society to strive toward peace, economic equality and justice

He said that his young daughter came home recently singing a song about Martin Luther King that emphasized his strive for peace and cooperation with public officials to make change possible.

That, Rickford said, is a “Disney-fication” of MLK’s legacy.

He said that so often King’s message is watered down to focus on individualism and American Exceptionalism, leaving out the sacrifice and work put in my millions of activists who rose up with King to call for change.

As King neared the end of his life, Rickford said, scared but unafraid to continue speaking truth to power, he began to be seen by the public as a nuisance — calling for change not just in regard to racial inequality, but also about war, economic disparity and education.

The fact that these ideas were unpopular and rejected, reflects the kind of scorn people sometimes use when referring to modern day activists in movements such as Black Lives Matter and Anti-drone protesters.

He said King can best be honored by holding up that history of activism.

“Let’s become nuisances,” he said.

Here are 18 photos from Monday’s event:

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Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.