Award Puts Everett Marshburn in the Spotlight

March 11, 2014

Everett MarshburnFrom the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – In My Opinion – James Causey – March 11, 2014

Everett Marshburn understands that everyone has a story to tell, and as producer of Milwaukee Public Television’s “Black Nouveau” — an award-winning program that examines issues of culture, race and heritage — he often tries to find the winning formula that opens the pathway for discussion.

Marshburn, 66, will be honored March 20 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts with the Bayard Rustin Award from Diverse & Resilient for the work he does behind the scenes to spur these conversations. The award recognizes those whose work is not always in the spotlight but who contribute in big ways.

Walter Naegle, Rustin’s longtime partner, will be the keynote speaker.

Gary Hollander, president and CEO of Diverse & Resilient, said Marshburn leads with “humility, purpose and grace,” much like Rustin did.

While Marshburn spends most of his time behind the scenes, he is all about education through conversation. Conversations about controversial topics are already hard, but technology has made them even harder to have.

One way to have those conversations is by presenting topics with subjects willing to open up, and that is something “Black Nouveau” has been recognized for. For example, if you are going to have a conversation with young people about HIV, you need to talk with those who are the most affected: young people and grassroots organizations working to reach them.

While the topics are not new, the fresh perspective that Marshburn brings gives them new life. Marshburn told me that instead of rehashing a topic — black civil rights vs. gay rights, for instance — he’d much rather push to see where the two topics have common ground.

I asked Marshburn, who doesn’t like to be defined by labels, if he ever was forced to choose between fighting for gay rights vs. fighting for civil rights. He told me no. “It’s not a choice,” he said. “I believe in people’s rights, and that’s where the conversation should be headed.”

Marshburn said progress is usually found when people find something they can agree on and move forward from there.

Commonality is harder to come by today because technology has made it so much easier to interact only with those who think like us. Smartphones and tablets give us the ability to read, hear and see only the conversations we want. If you want to hear only a conservative spin or a liberal spin, simply put on your headphones, type in a few keywords and you don’t have to listen to the other side.

“We are more technical now than ever before, but we still know so little about one another,” Marshburn said.

In addition to producing “Black Nouveau” for seven seasons, he has produced a number of documentaries including “Freedom Walkers for Milwaukee Jobs,” “This Little Light of Mine,” “Stories from the Homefront” and “Other Faces of AIDS.”

He said receiving the award that honors one of the chief organizers of the historic 1963 March on Washington was a great surprise because he didn’t even know he was being nominated. Besides being Martin Luther King’s adviser, Rustin was credited with teaching King about Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance and advised him on the tactics of civil disobedience.

Rustin faded from the list of well-known civil rights icons because of public discomfort with his sexual orientation.

While Rustin was a renaissance man, I didn’t even learn about his contributions to the human rights movement until 2013 when Diverse & Resilient honored Denise Crumble with its first Bayard Rustin Award. When I looked up information on Rustin, I was blown away by his importance.

When he died in 1987, a New York Times obituary reported: “Looking back at his career, Mr. Rustin, a Quaker, once wrote: ‘The principal factors which influenced my life are 1) nonviolent tactics; 2) constitutional means; 3) democratic procedures; 4) respect for human personality; 5) a belief that all people are one.'”

That’s pretty high praise for a man who had been relegated to the background. For Marshburn, the Rustin Award is apt and well-deserved.

James E. Causey is a Journal Sentinel editorial writer, columnist and blogger. Email  Facebook: Twitter:
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