How colleges are honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, hosting Day of Racial Healing

Peaceful marches, powerful speakers and students serving their communities will highlight a week of activities.

“We Cannot Walk Alone. A Day On, Not a Day Off.”

Those are two of the many beautiful themes highlighting the next few days of remembrances and celebrations happening at colleges and universities across the nation around Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the National Day of Racial Healing.

Thousands of institutions and organizations with ties to higher education will extend the Jan. 17 commemoration of Dr. King to Jan. 18 and beyond, with peaceful marches, extensive programming and community outreach projects to show solidarity and heighten awareness around racial and social justice.

That mission is front and center at Rutgers University again this year, which is hosting a week of virtual and live events around another theme—Healing in Action: Impact and Integration—where it will ask participants statewide how they can help promote and drive equity and inclusion. Rutgers is part of the American Association of College and Universities’ Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Campus Centers that aims to halt systemic racism.

“Healing does not mean we are dismissing or forgetting the damage and trauma that exists,” said Tyreek Rolon, Rutgers student and TRHT facilitator. “It means we are no longer willing to allow that damage and trauma to control our lives.”

After a long holiday weekend of festivities culminating in MLK Day, colleges and universities on Tuesday will embrace the National Day of Racial Healing, which started six years ago by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to “restore our trust in each other, build authentic relationships and inspire collective action.” The AAC&U says honoring the quest to heal should be a mission of institutions beyond this week.

“All institutions of higher education must embrace the public purpose of higher education by addressing issues of moral and civic responsibility,” said Lynn Pasquerella, AAC&U President. “Identifying the ways in which structural racism is perpetuated and eliminating the belief in a hierarchy of human value are integral to the civic dimensions of liberal education as a force for the public good.”

The campus celebrations

The IDEALS Institute at the University of Arkansas is helping bring populations together on the day through an interactive virtual session called Race in the South, which will discuss inequities that have existed in the region. There is also a national virtual celebration from the Kellogg Foundation, which had hundreds of thousands of attendees last year, that will be guest-hosted by broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien (who is also scheduled to appear at Oklahoma State’s MLK celebration on Thursday), actress Julissa Calderon and activist Heather McGhee.

Several dignitaries will headline events, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who will headline the Martin Luther King Regional Celebration presented by Saginaw Valley State University on Wednesday; poet Nikky Finney at Vanderbilt University’s MLK commemoration on Monday; singer and civil rights icon Bettie Mae Fikes at Penn State University Scranton on Tuesday; journalist Lisa Ling at the University of Nebraska on Thursday; and Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of Oliver Brown of the famed Brown v. Board of Education case, at a combined event from Davenport University, Grand Valley State University and Grand Rapids Community College on Monday.

“Our annual celebration amplifies Dr. King’s historical reflections and philosophies of attaining a fair and just society,” said Latoya Booker, Davenport University’s executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion. “Cheryl’s presentation, ‘Brown v. The Board of Education: The Legacy Continues,’ will inspire attendees to take on persistent barriers to advancing educational equity.”

More from UB: Diversity is our superpower: A campus leader’s amazing words on equity

The University of Michigan is hosting a huge number of events around the MLK holiday and throughout January and February (which is Black History Month), including its annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium Memorial Keynote Lecture and a panel discussion this year on reparations, including potential cash payments and college tuition that may be owed to African Americans.

Charisse Burden-Stelly, a scholar in the Race and Capitalism Project at the University of Chicago and professor at Carleton College, will keynote Western Carolina University’s celebration on Monday night with a look at “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Tradition of Radical Blackness.”

The University of Richmond’s We Cannot Walk Alone celebration includes an amazing array of activities and sessions, highlight by community conversations on consent, respecting all faiths, institutional history and ties to slavery and “creating a more just world through the arts.”

Amazing work

More than just a week for honoring those who were trailblazers and addressing race issues that still exist, several colleges and universities are giving back to their communities. The University of North Carolina is encouraging students to take part in a book drive and write letters of encouragement to those who have been incarcerated.

At nearby High Point University, students will attend the Martin Luther King Jr. Worship Service on Monday before offering service support throughout the community. Among the amazing array of help High Point is delivering:

  • Packing 28,000 seeds for community gardens across the world
  • Cleanup of parks, greenways and a local food pantry
  • Writing notes to first responders, thanking them for their efforts
  • And putting together around 50,000 meals to feed the hungry.

“HPU makes Martin Luther King Jr. Day ‘A Day On, Not a Day Off’ because Dr. King’s legacy demands we serve and love our neighbors,” said Rev. Joe Blosser, executive director of HPU’s Center for Community Engagement. “We honor Dr. King by educating ourselves about what justice demands of us, and by serving with our neighbors to build up the beloved community here in High Point.”

Colorado State University is one of many hosting marches in honor of Dr. King.

“We are looking forward to having a great turnout for this important event, which not only celebrates our achievements but emphasizes the need for much more progress in the areas of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice,” said Bridgette Johnson, CSU assistant vice president for inclusive excellence. “CSU and our partners are truly invested in making our community more socially just and inclusive.”

The UNCF is also hosting a number of events including its annual birthday celebration and awards in honor of Dr. King. For institutions looking for more guidance and promotion possibilities, the AAC&U has a number of resources available to help plan and promote events.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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