Main content
King Week events highlight relevance of Civil Rights Movement
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Emory community commemorated the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. with a week of virtual events, including worship services, lectures, discussions and community service awards.

— Library of Congress

The Emory University community celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday with a week of virtual events, focused on picking up the torch that King lit for America more than 60 years ago.

To kick off the week, the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life held a special Beloved Community worship service. Walter Fluker, dean’s professor of spirituality, ethics and leadership in Emory’s Candler School of Theology, gave remarks on how King recognized the urgent needs of his time and how we must rise to meet the urgency of now. He noted that King delivered more than 2,500 speeches in the decade before he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Fluker encouraged attendees to wake up running.

“In his short time, King and those brave and unknown souls who struggled with him expanded the moral grammar of American history and culture from parochially applied democratic principles to concrete proposals for inclusiveness, equity and action,” Fluker said. “I’d like to think he was running a social justice errand, and while running from his fate he woke up to his destiny. King woke up to his destiny and so must we.” 

Seizing the time

That same message was stressed on Jan. 18 when many of Emory’s other events took place.

In the afternoon, the Department of African American Studies hosted a question-and-answer session with Bobby Seale, founding chairman of the Black Panther Party. Seale’s 1970 book “Seize the Time” tells the party’s history and he was portrayed by Jonathan Majors in the Golden Globe Award winning film “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”

Jessica Lynne Stewart, assistant professor of African American Studies, moderated the discussion, which focused on how to build a political movement.

Bobby Seale

Bobby Seale, founding chair of the Black Panther Party, gave the 2022 King Week keynote address.

Seale described how his background as a U.S. Air Force aircraft mechanic, steel plant worker and engineer informed his approach to designing social change. He also shared that seeing King speak about economic rights at Oakland Municipal Auditorium on Dec. 28, 1962, inspired him to become an activist. 

During Seale’s tenure as chairman of the Black Panther Party, the group grew to 49 chapters across the country, published a weekly newspaper, developed a program to patrol the police and most notably started a free breakfast program for children, which doubled as a voter registration drive.

Playing our part

In the evening, Oxford College held a virtual celebration. Sophomore Hannah Bodus, who is the 2020 Martin Luther King Jr. Scholar at Oxford, reflected on what the holiday means to her.

“Standing as the most recent MLK Scholarship recipient, I can say this award is life-changing for the best by allowing underrepresented backgrounds like myself equal opportunities to pursue higher education, nonetheless at a prestigious institution — truly a Dr. King dream,” Bodus said.

She continued, “Honoring Dr. King and taking time to remember his life’s work is the least we can do to say thank you for his courageous leadership to peacefully organize and enact social change to better the lives of the underserved and mistreated African American community here in the U.S.”

Later in the evening, the Rev. Kim Jackson, who is the Georgia state senator for District 41, delivered remarks. Jackson asked students, “What part will you play as we all do this work to bend the long arc of the moral universe toward justice?”

Jackson enrolled at Furman University in 2002. At that time, Greenville County in South Carolina was in a contentious debate about whether to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a paid county holiday. Working with a local pastor and meeting people in the community lit her torch to fight for social justice, which she has carried as an Episcopal priest and politician.

“One of the greatest lessons I learned in college is that none of us has to do it all, in fact, none of us can do it all,” said Jackson, who earned her master of divinity degree from Candler School of Theology in 2009. “We are invited to listen to our neighbors, listen to what’s right in front of you.”

Continuing the fight

Also, on Jan. 18, Emory University School of Law hosted a panel discussion of the documentary “Ali’s Comeback.” In Atlanta, on Oct. 26, 1970, Muhammad Ali had his first fight after three years of being banned from the sport. He had been fined for draft evasion and was ostracized for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War on religious grounds. The fight almost didn’t happen due to violent opposition from the Ku Klux Klan.

In the film, director Art Jones interviewed those closest to Ali about how the match between him and Jerry Quarry came to be and why Atlanta was the right location. A key person in making the fight happen was the late Georgia State Sen. LeRoy Johnson, who was the first Black state senator in the in the post-Reconstruction era.

The panel included Ali’s first wife, Khalilah Ali; former Atlanta mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young; Robert Kassel, an Emory College and Emory Law graduate who helped fund Ali’s return to boxing; and Atlanta City Council member Michael Julian Bond. Emory Law professor Robert Parrish moderated the discussion.

Six people meet on Zoom

Emory Law hosted a panel discussion of “Ali’s Comeback,” a documentary about Muhammad Ali’s return to boxing after three years of being banned from the sport.

Panelists shared the ways in which King and Ali inspired each other to take a political stance against the war in Vietnam, something those who knew both men said they were afraid to do. In fact, Khalilah Ali said the boxer was going to enlist to avoid prison, but she encouraged him to stay the course.

In 1967, Ali asked in an interview, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”

Similarly, when King spoke out against the war, he stated, “We were taking the Black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”

What “Ali’s Comeback” remarkably demonstrates is that both in 1970 and today, it takes businesses and individuals with access to capital, activists and politicians joined together to make social change. The panelists concluded by urging attendees to keep fighting for justice.

Recognizing excellence

The final event during King Week was the 29th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Awards Ceremony. This year’s theme was breaking down injustice through activism and voting.

This year’s award recipients are as follows:

  • Rollins School of Public Health Dean James W. Curran, for his lifelong dedication to health equity. (Curran has announced he will step down later this year; Daniele Fallin will serve as the new James W. Curran Dean of Public Health at the Rollins School of Public Health starting July 1.)
  • Guido Silvestri, a professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, and division chief, Division of Microbiology and Immunology, in Emory University School of Medicine, for starting the Conversations on Race weekly chats in the pathology department following the murder of George Floyd.
  • Neena Smith-Bankhead, who has led several public health initiatives, including a multi-million-dollar grant-based project to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the South; she is currently senior associate director of programs in Rollins School of Public Health and an adjunct faculty member at Clayton State University.
  • DeJuan White, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, who facilitates implicit bias and diversity training at Emory and Grady Memorial Hospital, and mentors medical students from underrepresented groups.
  • Audric M. Donald, a senior student in the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, who is working to increase the number of African Americans in the nursing profession and is researching ways to combat dementia in elderly African American patients.
  • Churchwell Diversity and Inclusion Collective, a resident-run organization in Emory School of Medicine that works to “cultivate a safe and welcoming environment for internal medicine house staff from diverse backgrounds.” The group held voter registration drives and helped Atlanta residents apply for absentee ballots during recent elections.

Andra Gillespie, director of Emory’s James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference and associate professor of political science, served as keynote speaker.

During her speech, titled “Voting Rights as a 21st Century Struggle: The Scientific Case for Hope,” Gillespie discussed the myriad factors that impact voter registration and voter turnout. She emphasized that activists must train their field staff, be observant and stay focused to have successful voter registration initiatives.

“You are keeping Dr. King’s dream alive,” Gillespie said to the honorees. “Democracy requires active participation, constant vigilance and this is a reminder that we can’t take the work that people have done ahead of us for granted. We have to do work to maintain the progress that they achieved.”

This idea of maintaining progress is the thread that ties Emory’s King Week activities together.  Everyone has a role to play in extending justice to one another. Just as King said in his “Mountaintop” speech, “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be.”

Recent News