The thermometer was hovering around zero degrees, but that didn't stop the roughly 70 people who gathered in Montana State University Billings' Peaks to Plains Park on Monday, listening as the Traditions Bell tolled five times to honor the legacy of one of the civil rights movement's most renowned leaders.
There were no classes Monday, but political science student Halle Keltner urged her fellow students to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day as "a holiday on, not a day off."
"Today we will ring the bell, along with thousands across America, to celebrate and honor the life of Dr. King," Keltner said.
Ringing the bell symbolizes the quest for peace along with justice, human rights and social and economic progress for all people, Keltner said. The bell also echoes the independence the Liberty Bell represents, Keltner said.
While the United States has made important strides in civil rights since King's days, MSUB Interim Chancellor Ron Larsen pointed to the #MeToo movement and last week's news that President Donald Trump had used of vulgarities to refer to certain African countries and Haiti as proof that King's fight is not yet over.
As was often the case in the '50s and '60s, Larsen said college campuses still have an important role to play as minority groups continue to seek equal treatment in America.
"This is a place where we want to provide that podium where people can speak out," Larsen said.
Referring to Trump's reported characterization of Haiti and certain African nations as "shithole countries," he added that's he's visited some of them, including a trip to Kenya to help deliver wheelchairs. While there, he said he met a woman who had taken in five children after her brother and her neighbor both died of AIDS, and was "humbled by people doing amazing things in incredible circumstances."
"I learned this lesson of compassion and responsibility," Larsen said. "I really encourage people to learn more about these nations before they put them on a list."
Following the frigid bell-ringing ceremony, the attendees retreated to the Student Union Atrium, where community activist Eran Thompson quoted excerpts from King's final public speech, often referred to the "I've been to the mountaintop" speech.
Speaking in a Memphis church on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated, King had traveled to the Tennessee city to support an ongoing strike by the municipal sanitation workers. The workforce was predominantly black and had long been subjected to poor pay and dangerous working conditions — a fact underscored two months earlier when two workers were crushed to death in a garbage compactor.
In his speech, King answered a hypothetical question of what age he would choose to live in. After ticking off a list of pivotal moments throughout history, he settled on the present.
"Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up," King said. "The nation is sick, trouble is in the land, confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the 20th century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding. Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today ... the cry is always the same: 'We want to be free.'"