When it comes to creating change in the world, Hill Harper, an award-winning actor, best-selling author and philanthropist, says “power is the people.”

On Monday morning, Harper delivered the annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium keynote speech at the University of Michigan. Speaking to hundreds gathered at Hill Auditorium, Harper urged the audience to consider this phrase when aiming to make lasting change. 

Harper was also accompanied by Aisha Fukushima, the founder of RAPtivism (Rap Activism), a hip-hop project that aims to amplify global efforts for freedom and justice. Fukushima reflected upon Harper’s message, as well as the symposium’s theme of “The Fierce Urgency of Now” in her opening and closing performances, which focused on current social justice issues in Michigan and worldwide.

Organized by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium Planning Committee and the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, the symposium honors the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

University President Mark Schlissel said the symposium intends to highlight the values taught by Dr. King as well as the progress which still needs to be made toward social justice, especially at the University.

“(The symposium) reflects a desire to do good in the world and help create a better, more just and more equitable society,” he said. “We know there is so much more for us to do, because while talent is equally distributed in our society, opportunity most certainly is not.”

According to Harper, it is “shameful” that today’s society and activists are still facing the same issues of social and racial injustice Martin Luther King Jr. worked to address 50 years ago.

“It’s a shame for me to stand here, next to this podium, talking about the exact same things that he was talking about,” he said. “We have to hold a mirror up to that and realize that that is shameful. And you know where that falls? That falls on us.”

This symposium holds special significance in the wake of a year of bias incidents and hatred directed against communities of color and other marginalized groups — ranging from racist vandalism in West Quad Residence Hall to racist slurs being painted on downtown buildings.

In an earlier interview with The Daily, E.  Royster Harper, vice president of Student Life, expressed the importance of working towards a more inclusive campus community in light of the divisive narratives being expressed in the national news media.

“Students don’t come here in a vacuum, so they’ve been watching and listening to the national narrative, all the divisiveness and the vileness, and they’ve seen it on television, they’ve seen it on social media, and you think ‘I’m going off to school, and I’m all excited about that, and I’ve got to come here?’” she said. “Particularly when we promote and advertise something different. So we talk about our aspirations, the kind of community we want to be — it’s not the community we are yet, but it’s the kind of community we want to be.”

LSA freshman Jazmine Johnson thought this message of responsibility was especially relevant and powerful for today’s social and political climate.

“I thought it was really inspiring seeing (Harper) talk about (those struggles) and how they are still happening today,” she said.

Harper spoke of the power individual actions play in making the changes Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to.  Following with his message of “power is the people,” he emphasized the difference that can be made by each individual, especially by participating in elections at all levels of government. He also encouraged the audience to consider what they are willing to do to make the world a better place and to act on that intuition by refusing to let anything hold them back from standing up for justice.

“Elections matter,” Harper said. “Solidarity matters … Everyone here who has an intuition or a notion, we need you. We need your greatness, we need your inspiration. We need you to step out and step in.”

Harper said this potential for positive change comes down to the strength of positive energy.

“We can turn our potential energy into kinetic energy,” he said. “And as we turn our kinetic energy on, we start to feel a fire. You start to feel something happening in your spirit … And you start to say ‘We can do this, and we will do this, and this is how we are going to get there’ … We are all we need, because the power is the people. And so as we think about that, own the power. Own your greatness. We need you. The legacy of Dr. King calls for you, pleads for you to come out.”

Music, Theatre & Dance freshman Sarah Morgan said she believed the central message of the symposium was inspiring and impactful.

“I think the quote ‘power is the people’ will really resonate (with) me and I’ll take that wherever I go,” she said. 

Harper concluded his speech by leading the audience in a pledge to always harness their energy and their power to stand up for what is right.

“I will not allow fear to stop me from taking actions that I already know I should take,” he said.  “Instead, I will act, encourage, with heart. I will fight and I will change the world. I will help humanity. I will fight for social justice. The power is the people. The power is the us. The power is me.”

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