The lives of some of the nation’s most visible Black academicians are about to get even busier—at least for the next month or so.
Every year, the national Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday signals the start of one of the most hectic travel seasons for high-profile Black scholars, who crisscross the nation throughout much of February delivering speech after speech on college campuses during Black History Month.
In exchange, colleges and universities are often willing to pay hefty honorariums—in some cases up to $40,000—to lure a well-known speaker that can attract a massive crowd.
“I haven’t seen a lot of change over the years,” says Mark Castel, president of AEI Speakers in Boston, adding that prominent Black academics have always been popular on colleges and universities and are often booked more than a year in advance. “There has been a groundswell since the King holiday was first established, and colleges want to bring in people who can talk about the ideas that Dr. King brought forth for equality.”
Castel’s Boston-based company represents an impressive list of African Americans, from actress Kerry Washington to Black academics like Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin, and Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, the popular president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Bernice King, daughter of the slain civil rights leader, is also represented by AEI.
Castel says that, over the last decade, colleges and universities as well as the corporate community have invested resources each year to hire someone who can speak about the importance of diversity.
“Often people are looking for someone for that day,” he says of the King holiday, which will be celebrated this year on Monday, Jan. 18, three days after what would have been King’s 87th birthday had he not been gunned down on a motel balcony in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
The speaking fees vary, says Castel, with private colleges and universities often willing to pay more money than public institutions.
For example, to commemorate King Day this year, Dr. Cornel West will deliver an afternoon talk at Tuskegee University. Morehouse College’s Dr. Marc Lamont Hill will deliver a speech at Syracuse University, and Dr. William Jelani Cobb, head of the Black Studies program at the University of Connecticut, will head north to Bates College in Maine.
Hrabowski will deliver the keynote address at Purdue University, and Dr. Shaun Harper, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania, will deliver a talk at Duke University.
In North Carolina, Wake Forest University—a predominantly White institution—has teamed with Winston Salem State, a historically Black college and university, to sponsor a talk by Ilyasah Shabazz and Attallah Shabazz, the daughters of Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz. Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, will deliver the keynote address at a commemoration service at Clemson University in South Carolina.
The speaking gigs will continue throughout much of February.
“For many of us, we do very well financially starting with MLK Day and going right through the end of February,” says one prominent Black scholar who declined to be identified. “And truth be told, if you are a Black woman, you can even continue picking up extra days in March for Women’s History Month. Giving speeches can be very profitable if you are in demand.”
Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on twitter @jamalericwatson