King honored at musical celebration

by Tracy Ellingson

Mauryn Buckner twisted impatiently on her grandmother’s lap Sunday night while listening in the back of the Ted Mann Concert Hall stage.
The little girl, dressed in a green velvet dress with a full white skirt, had just sat through a two-hour concert honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., complete with dancing, music and speeches.
Although Mauryn couldn’t realize it, the University’s 16th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial Concert holds a significant place in her family’s history. Former University professor Reginald Buckner, the grandfather Mauryn never met, was the catalyst behind the first memorial celebration held at the University.
“I remember him saying he wanted to do something to honor this great man,” said Sharon Buckner, recalling her husband’s first plans for a memorial concert on campus. “As busy as he was, he wanted to get support for this idea of having an artistic expression of Dr. Martin Luther (King).”
Reginald Buckner, who was a professor of music and African American studies, began the memorial concert as way to celebrate King’s life and to pay him tribute through the arts. Each year the concert, which is now coordinated by University Relations and the Office of the Associate Vice President for Minority Affairs and Diversity, present well-known musicians, speakers and other artistic performers.
This year’s concert featured internationally known gospel group The Steeles. The Twin Cities-based brother/sister quintet, dressed in bright, flashy jackets and accompanied by a jazz ensemble, brought the audience to its feet, clapping and singing along to the music. “We’re gonna celebrate, is that alright?” one of the singers asked the crowd.
Group member Jearlyn Steele Battle said the group was excited to be invited to perform at the University’s tribute to King. She said they only give about two or three performances in the Twin Cities every year and were particularly excited to be here for Martin Luther King Jr. Day because of the day’s significance.
“This is the only performance we’re giving for Martin Luther King Day,” Battle said. “We’re thrilled to have a larger venue in which to perform.”
When Buckner formed the first program, it was the only concert dedicated to King in Minnesota. The show was held annually in Northrop Memorial Auditorium until three years ago when it moved to Ted Mann Concert Hall.
“Our audience has been drawn away by more (performances) closer to their homes,” said Jeff Sturkey, University Relations staff member, who explained that this is the reason the concert is now in the smaller Ted Mann auditorium.
Although the concert’s audience has diminished since its first few years, Sunday the concert hall was filled to near-full capacity. Even University President-elect Mark Yudof sat on the main floor of the hall to join the celebration.
Frank Wharton, director of the Reginald Buckner Memorial Ensemble and friend of the late professor, has played in every memorial concert except one.
After Sunday’s performance, Wharton reminisced about all the work his friend went through to convince the University administration to approve the concert and make it a reality. “He’s the one who started (the concert),” said Wharton. “(Buckner was the) warmest, kindest, gentlest person” Wharton said he had ever known.
“His spirit is still here,” Wharton said, and added that if Buckner were there on Sunday to see the concert, “he’d smile, he’d be real pleased.”