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Community honors MLK with leadership award

LA CROSSE, WI (WKBT) - Half a century after Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his historic "I Have a Dream" speech, members of the La Crosse community remembered him by celebrating its own.

Bill Coleman and Dempsey Miller both received the La Crosse area's MLK Leadership Award Monday night at Viterbo University for their work in the community. Miller was the first African American to serve on City Council in La Crosse. He has also worked as the African American Family Liason for the La Crosse School District.

Coleman, a retired art teacher from the La Crosse School District, is credited with planning the Minority Studies Resource Center at UW-La Crosse. He also introduced middle school students in the city to black culture through music, particularly his African Drum Group.

"Before then, there was nothing in school or nothing I had ever done that ever paid attention my my heritage," he said.

Coleman has lived in La Crosse since the 70s, and he's seen a lot of changes come to the city.

Looking forward, he's hoping to see many more.

"It's like anywhere. The more things change, the more they stay the same," he said. "There are some things that need to stop happening, but that's human nature."


Coleman reflected on his first few years in the city, when women would cross the street to avoid sharing the sidewalk with him. He remembered years ago, a young boy called him a defamatory name without realizing its connotation. When he first joined the staff at Lincoln Middle School, he recalls hating his first days working in a district as white as a Wisconsin winter.

"For a lot of kids in La Crosse, he was the first black person they've ever known," his wife, Sarah, said.

Now, things have changed a little - Coleman is a prominent member of the community, and sees the transformation that's taken places over the decades.

"If you see something that should be done, maybe you're the one to do something about it," Coleman said. "I learned that from my grandmother."

He's still making change happen. Across the country on Martin Luther King Day, pundits talk about racial disparity, and economic advantages. Here, Coleman calls for more leadership for the black community.

"A number of people of color don't see themselves represented," he said. "Kids who want to aspire to do things, have to have somebody as a role model."

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