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How Colleges and Universities Nationwide are Commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Day approaches this year, colleges and universities across the nation are gearing up once again to celebrate and honor the life and legacy of the civil rights leader,Martin Luther King Jr. International ChapelMartin Luther King Jr. International ChapelMorehouse College

With programming ranging from panels and performances to service in the community – and much more in between – many institutions are planning to commemorate the occasion for longer than just the one day itself. The MLK Day programming schedules for several schools span multiple days full of various events, recognizing the numerous facets and aspects of the Civil Rights Movement.

Penn State, for instance, has events lined up for a number of its campuses. For many of them, the school has scheduled a “day of service,” wherein students, faculty, and staff can volunteer in their community. This is in addition to several marches and film screenings, including the online screening of several short films around the theme of waste and labor.

“King recognized that the work of the civil rights movement increasingly needed to be connected to the work of the labor movement — since without safe, well-paying, meaningful work all other human rights are in jeopardy,” according to the website. “Sixty years later, sanitation workers and those who work with waste and recycling remain vulnerable to unsafe and low-paying work, despite their integral role in keeping society running.”

Additionally, the school’s Forum on Black Affairs (FOBA) will host the 49th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Banquet on Jan. 15. The banquet – open to the public but tickets are first-come, first-served – will applaud the achievements of students and the community.

At the event, the 2024 Forum of Black Affairs Humanitarian Award will be given to “a member of the community who has excelled or has lived the legacy of truth and justice and put forth efforts around making sure community is built and things of that nature,” said banquet chair Stephanie Preston, associate dean for graduate educational equity at Penn State.

Festivities will also take place at Wayne State University this year, where event organizers are focusing on arts, culture, and music of the Civil Rights Movement.

"In 2023, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of hip hop. ... Hip Hop [has] influenced our culture, and that got me to thinking that other forms of music have influenced historical moments and how historical moments also have influenced the music happening at that time,” said Stacie Clayton, Wayne State’s director of community affairs.

Jan. 11 will feature a panel discussion on the city of Detroit’s role in the Civil Rights Movement as it relates to music, labor, politics, and religion – though the event is currently at capacity, Clayton said. The day after will follow that discussion up with music, poetry, and dance performances, celebrating the art and culture of the movement nationally. The Jan. 12 event will be free to the public and recorded for public viewing online as well.

Santita Jackson, daughter of civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson, will be the school’s special guest during the events.

2024 marks the 24th year that Wayne State has done an MLK tribute, born from the vision of former senior vice president and King’s Morehouse College classmate, the late Arthur L. Johnson, Clayton said.

Another of King’s associates, Bettie Mae Fikes, will speak at the University of New England (UNE) for the Maine school’s celebration of the late civil rights icon. King had spoken at one of UNE’s precursor schools, St. Francis College, in 1964, said Shannon Zlotkowski, assistant provost for DEI at UNE.

On Jan. 24, Fikes, the musician and activist who came to be known as “the Voice of Selma,” will keynote and perform at an event that is free and open to the public, discussing her connections to King, the late congressman John Lewis, and the Civil Rights Movement.

"We decided that we wanted to highlight women's roles in the Civil Rights Movement. This led us to learning more about Ms. Bettie Mae Fikes,” Zlotkowski said. “And her focus and her style matched what the sentiment and energy that we wanted [for] our event."

Meanwhile, in Virginia, the University of Richmond (UR) will host a series of free and open events around a central theme: “Commit to Humanity,” drawing inspiration from one of King’s 1959 speeches where he urged people to “make a career of humanity” and “commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights.”

One of its events will be a Jan. 18 panel discussion about King and the late Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker’s roles, not just as social justice leaders but also as spiritual leaders, said Anthony Crenshaw, director of operations and strategic initiatives and the 2024 MLK celebration chair at UR. Walker served as the former chief of staff to King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

“In the Civil Rights Movement, the church was kind of the heartbeat of that. I think what they're hoping to think about and engage people in is really what role should, could, does the church play in creating a more socially just world,” Crenshaw said of the panel.

And at King’s own alma mater, Morehouse College, much will be done to honor him as well. In addition to multiple forums and the school’s annual showing of documents from its Martin Luther King Jr. Collection to the campus community, Morehouse will celebrate the 60th anniversary of King’s Nobel Peace Prize award and speech this year, said Dr. Vicki Crawford, director of the King collection.

Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights will be displaying part of the King collection in a new exhibit, We Who Believe in Freedom: 1964–A Transformative Year in Civil Rights, starting Jan. 12, Crawford said.

Given that 2024 is also the 70th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, one of Morehouse’s MLK commemoration events this year will focus on education. On Jan. 25, Dr. Derrick P. Alridge, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Race and Public Education in the South, will deliver a lecture about education and the progress both made and yet to be made since the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Crawford said.

"He will be speaking about education and the role of teachers in the Civil Rights Movement,” Crawford said. “Education was very important to Dr. King. He came to Morehouse at the age of 15 years old.”

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