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For the first time in three years, students, New Haveners and faculty flooded Woolsey Hall to celebrate the legacy of civil rights champion Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  

The hallmark of the evening was a keynote address from King’s eldest son, Martin Luther King III, who discussed youth civic engagement, police brutality, climate change, college access and gun control with Yale Professor of Law James Forman Jr. Throughout the night, the activist suggested ways to cultivate a diverse culture where people can disagree without becoming disagreeable to one another, highlighting the need to find healing and spiritual sanctuary in a storm of injustice and trauma. 

Before Ethelia Holt ’24 and Kennedy Odiboh ’25 welcomed King to the stage, Shades of Yale — an on-campus a cappella group that celebrates music of the African Diaspora — filled Woolsey with a stirring gospel performance of “Amen/We Shall Overcome.” The music foreshadowed a critical component of the night: at its heart, King’s activism was one defined by words and writing in all its forms.

Every year, Martin Luther King III said, he asks himself if the world has finally achieved his father’s famous dream, which he proclaimed in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

“Every year I say, well, we didn’t quite get there,” he said. “But it’s wonderful that Martin Luther King Jr. was born in January [because that means the] ability to start anew every year.”

Central to his talk was a call to involve underrepresented demographics in politics, particularly young people, women and people of color. He urged the college students present to take control of their sociopolitical futures by registering to vote and running for various levels of office, highlighting that one of the first steps to resolving humanitarian crises is by acknowledging the power of having different perspectives on them.

The legislative branch of the American government continues to be dominated by men, and racism is still an everyday challenge that Black Americans encounter as they find themselves subject to authoritative violence and discrimination, he said. The unfortunate reality is that many activists often go unrecognized, but that does not underestimate the importance of effecting change on a small, local and interpersonal level with kindness and the “symphony of brotherhood,” he said.

“The ability to listen and learners produce both leaders who want to remain relevant in a changing society,” he said. “As I conclude my remarks this evening, I want to challenge us to … choose … healing action. Together we can graze a new path to a better future and a more peaceful world [with] love and justice.”

He explained his ability to keep from internalizing feelings of anger or frustration despite losing several family members while growing up. He recalled only being 10 years old when he found out — by watching the news on TV — that his father had been killed. Only a year later, King III said that his uncle “mysteriously drowned,” after trying to learn more about Rev. Dr. King’s assassination. And years later, King III’s grandmother was gunned down in church. 

Toward the conclusion of his speech, King tied it back to where it all began: watching his father’s activism when he was a young boy, emulating his work and picking up where he had left off. King’s own identity as a civil rights advocate is heavily inspired by his father but also one that sees him growing, learning and adapting to new injustices constantly, he said. He re-emphasized the three evils of the world that his father claimed needed solving — racism, sexism and violence — before opening the floor to questions from the public.

One audience member asked King about James W.C. Pennington, a scholar who escaped from slavery and became the first Black student to attend Yale Divinity School. The asker took issue with the University’s failure to award Pennington a posthumous degree, despite an active push from students. After the question was asked, several audience members sitting next to the speaker raised signs, presumably relating to the cause. 

King responded that he wasn’t sure why the degree had not yet been awarded, but encouraged the audience member to gather a team to continue the fight.

Another audience member asked King how Black Americans can possibly forgive when the same experiences and systemic barriers that traumatized their enslaved ancestors continue to materialize today. King agreed with the speaker’s statement and recognised that he wasn’t sure how to answer that question, but then advised them to think of forgiveness as an internal element rather than in service of another person. 

Sebastian Ward ’26, who is part of a nonprofit education access organization called the New Haven Promise, attended the talk and had the opportunity to speak with King III before the event through a pre-keynote meet and greet for local high school students and education access advocacy groups. 

Ward said he appreciated King’s discussion of class base mobilization and how he emphasized the power of robust unions ”that have the ability to fight for living wages and to tear down an unjust economic system.”

Another student, Yvonne Agyapong ’26, left the talk with a specific quote in mind.

“‘If we do not teach nonviolence then we face nonexistence’,” Agyapong echoed.

The evening’s conversation marked one among several events that the MLK Commemoration Planning Committee, chaired by Director, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Accessibility of Yale University Library & Collections Risë Nelson, spearheaded for the remainder of the month. An exhibition celebrating the King family’s ties with and contributions to the University has been open at the Sterling Memorial Library Nave since Jan. 9 — and on Jan. 23, the committee plans to host two informative sessions on Rev. Dr. King’s ecosystem engineering work and his legacy in University archives, respectively.

According to Nelson, over 2000 in-person and several hundred virtual attendees listened to Martin Luther King III speak on Wednesday night. 

The 2020 MLK Commemoration featured both American political activist Angela Davis and poet Nikki Giovanni.

Correction, Jan. 19: A previous version of the article misstated Martin Luther King III’s title as Dr., rather than Mr., and inaccurately stated that the 2023 commemoration was the first held in three years. In fact, there were virtual celebrations hosted in 2021 and 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The article has been updated to reflect these changes, as well as to provide further information about the programming surrounding the event.

Brian Zhang is Arts editor of the Yale Daily News and the third-year class president at Yale. Previously, he covered student life for the University desk. His writing can also be found in Insider Magazine, The Sacramento Bee, BrainPOP, New York Family and uInterview. Follow @briansnotebook on Instagram for more!
Sarah Ben Tkhayet covers Business. She is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College majoring in Global Affairs and Economics.