Art, music, and conversations fill MLK Day 2018 in Philly

Youngsters participate in MLK Day art projects at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. (Photo courtesy of Eastern State.)

As usual in Philly, the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day is packed with family-friendly arts and educational activities at local museums, with plenty to see and hear on the day itself, as well as many volunteer opportunities.


On Sunday, January 14, the Philadelphia Museum of Art (in partnership with the Philadelphia Jazz Project) offers a special concert in the Great Stair Hall at 3pm (free after admission to the museum). The Sound of Progress: Songs for John Henry “celebrates the heroic figures of John Henry and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through blues, hymns, work songs, and ragtime.” The performance is inspired by Philadelphia-born children’s-book illustrator Jerry Pinkney, whose work has received five Caldecott Honor Medals and five Coretta Scott King Awards.

At the National Museum of American Jewish History, admission is free on January 15, and the museum will host kid-friendly performances, arts and craft activities, and “spotlight talks about racial justice.”

Happenings at the African American Museum

The African American Museum in Philadelphia is hosting a weekend-long celebration launching on Friday, January 12. Passion, Progress & Pulchritude: An Evening of Poetry & Music is happening from 7 to 9pm, and it’s free with advance registration. Curated by Philly’s Nina “Lyrispect” Ball, the night will feature performances by Brinae Ali Bradley, Christian Lovehall, Solomon Thorne, and Heru Shabaka Ra leading the Basquiat Blues house band.

The events continue on Saturday and Sunday, under the theme of “Owning the Dream: Taking Personal Responsibility,” with MLK reenactor presentations, music, workshops, and film happenings. On Monday, there’s a full roster of activities, performances, and workshops running from 10am to 5pm, featuring Sister Cities Girlchoir, Universal African Dance & Drum ensemble, and many more. Saturday through Monday, the museum offers a special $2 admission price for it all. Visit online for more details and the full lineup.

A letter from jail

Eastern State Penitentiary also offers an extended slate of community programs. On Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, professional actors, youth readers, and community leaders will read excerpts from King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” each day at 11:30am, 1:30pm, and 3:30pm. Each reading will be followed by an informal Q&A moderated by a civil rights scholar.

The historic site says it looks forward to “an open and frank discussion” about the ways King’s legacy connects to ongoing protests against injustice today. A former prison is a good place to grapple with this: King’s own arrests and stints in jail helped draw undeniable attention not just to individual racism, but to systemic oppression.

On Monday, January 15, Eastern State will partner with Art Sanctuary for activities aimed at kids ages 7 to 12 and their families, who are invited to let Dr. King’s letter inspire their own original artwork. All MLK weekend events at the historic site are free, open to the public, and require no reservations.

The Orchestra’s MLK tribute

On the musical side, the Philadelphia Orchestra presents its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Tribute Concert at Girard College Chapel on January 15 at 1:30pm (free tickets will become available online through the orchestra’s website starting on Tuesday, January 9). Conductor Thomas Wilkins will helm a 90-minute performance including Barber’s Adagio for Strings, alongside a recitation of excerpts of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech by local storyteller Charlotte Blake Alston, and much more. For those who can’t be there in person, the program will also be broadcast live on WRTI 90.1 FM. 

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