“Where Do We Go from Here?” was the theme of the 19th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Observance and Sunrise Celebration, held Monday at the ALA Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Denver.
An estimated 230 people attended the 6:30 a.m. celebration, joined by more than two dozen library leaders who read passages, made short speeches, and recited poems that recognized King’s legacy and advocated for peace and social justice. The event was sponsored by the American Library Association’s Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services, the Social Responsibilities Round Table, and the Black Caucus of the ALA.
Keynote speaker Anthony Graves spoke of perseverance and hope. Graves spent more than 18 years imprisoned—including 12 years on death row—after being wrongfully convicted of murder in Texas. “I was a man with his dreams just like any other man,” he said. “It all changed in a second.”
During his time in prison, Graves was twice given an execution date. They asked what he wanted done with his body and what he wanted for his last meal. But he decided then that he was going to “live until I die.” “I didn’t just survive; I thrived,” Graves said. “I asked myself as Dr. King once did, ‘Where do I go from here?’”
Graves turned to writing and reading, corresponding with pen pals who encouraged him to persevere. He said he realized that he enjoyed interacting with people and decided he would commit himself to the service of others and his community. Along the way he read books by King, Malcolm X, Carter G. Woodson, Harriet Jacobs, Sidney Poitier, James Baldwin, and others.
“I lost almost everything,” Graves said. “I did not lose my mind. I did not lose my soul.”
After his conviction was eventually overturned and he was released in 2010, Graves became a community advocate and public speaker, creating a foundation to push for criminal justice reform, with a focus on Texas. In 2016, Graves was able to have the prosecutor of his case disbarred for presenting false testimony and for withholding information that led to his wrongful conviction.
“I would not be the same man today if I didn’t go through hell and come back,” Graves said. “Death row did not take my life, it did not kill my soul. It gave me purpose.”
He encouraged attendees to be active and never give up: “Every person matters.”
Following Graves, Alexandra Rivera, senior associate librarian at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, delivered the call to action, asking attendees to find strength and hope despite frustrations and obstacles. “We are here,” Rivera said. “We are present. Despite the many efforts to silence us, to subjugate us, we are here.”
The event concluded with audience members joining hands to sing “We Shall Overcome.”