By Mary Abowd
Photo by Joel Wintermantle

You can hear the beauty of his performance because he’s just one step from singing.”
—Van Jones
MLK Celebration speaker

Martin Luther King Jr. has been hailed as a theological and political genius, “but we fail to honor him as the artistic genius that he was,” said Van Jones, the keynote speaker at the University’s 26th annual MLK Celebration held Jan. 11 in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

King’s artistry was apparent in his speechmaking. “When he stepped up to the microphone, there was a musicality in his voice,” said Jones, a civil rights activist, author, and political contributor for CNN. “You can hear the beauty of his performance because he’s just one step from singing.”

But King’s real genius surfaced when his words flowed spontaneously, Jones said. In the final few minutes of the “I Have a Dream” speech, King abandoned his script and riffed about his dreams of freedom and fellowship among races. “He never gives the last paragraph of the speech,” Jones said. “He pushes back and looks up, and what you hear then is the greatest act of slam poetry in the history of the Republic.”

Keep moving forward

Jones was joined on stage by two African American artistic luminaries—special guest Nikki Giovanni, the renowned poet and distinguished professor at Virginia Tech University, and Theaster Gates, UChicago’s director of Arts + Public Life and professor of visual arts.

The Chicago Children’s Choir-Voice of Chicago Ensemble performed moving renditions of civil rights-era songs like “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round,” prompting lively discussion between Gates and Giovanni about the relationship of the arts to justice movements like Black Lives Matter.

“So much of what King did were these amazing speech acts that changed the world,” said Gates, who paused to read Giovanni’s poem “Love Is.” “Your poetry has given us other kinds of freedoms, the freedom to be creative, our best selves, our blackest selves,” he told Giovanni.

Giovanni urged audience members, particularly the youth, to be fearless in all they do, citing Muhammad Ali and his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. “What Ali taught us is that you cannot be afraid,” she said. Whether in art or activism, “we have to approach it all with the love of the change,” she added. “That’s why black people are so important. We have been the people who have been willing to make the changes necessary to take us forward.”

Answering King's call to action

The evening included recognition of this year’s Diversity Leadership Award recipients Charles Branham (alumni), Nancy Schwartz (faculty), and Denise Jorgens (staff). The winners were honored earlier in the day at a reception in which President Robert J. Zimmer presented them with their awards.

The MLK Celebration was followed by a community reception in Ida Noyes Hall. Over the following weekend, students, faculty, and staff took part in the MLK Weekend of Service organized by the University Community Service Center in partnership with the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the University of Chicago Charter School and the nonprofit City Year Chicago.

During the long weekend, which began Saturday, Jan. 16, volunteers traveled to more than 30 service sites on Chicago’s South and West sides and worked together to beautify Thomas Kelly High School and Brighton Park Elementary School with murals, paintings, and light construction projects.

Jones captured that spirit of social engagement in the final remarks of his speech. After detailing the history of African American struggle—first slavery, then Jim Crow, and currently the realities of mass imprisonment of young, African American males—he appealed to the idealism of the audience’s young people: “I have no doubt in my mind that somebody … in your generation—it might be you; it probably is you—is going to decide to put your love against all this hate, put your hope against all this fear, put your poetry against these shackles, put your songs against this barbed wire,” he said. “If you do that, then you’re gonna win, and we’re gonna win.”

The MLK Celebration was sponsored by Campus and Student Life, the Center for Identity + Inclusion/Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, the Office of Civic Engagement, the Institute of Politics, Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, UChicago Creative, and the Vice President for Communications.

Originally published on January 18, 2016.