The University of Michigan’s 2021 Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium — which has been held annually since 1986 — occurred virtually this year on Monday. The keynote lecture, focused around the symposium’s theme of “Where Do We Go From Here?,” touched on King’s legacy and his impact on current social justice work.

The keynote was moderated by Dr. Stephen Ward, associate professor in the Residential College and the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, and featured two speakers: Dr. Gloria House, a University alum, poet and human rights activist who designed the African American and African Studies major at the University of Michigan – Dearborn; and Malik Yakini, the co-founder and Executive Director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.

The lecture, coordinated by the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, is part of a larger program of events surrounding King’s legacy from January through March. 

Lumas Helaire, coordinator of the Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium and associate director of OAMI, said the speakers were chosen because they were especially suited to speak to this year’s theme. 

“They’re looking at some of the deepest challenges and issues within communities,” Helaire said. “We’re definitely looking for speakers who have exhibited an ability to work towards whatever the theme may be, and these two speakers definitely have.”

During the keynote, House discussed how King’s legacy inspires current civil rights activists.

“One of Dr. King’s many legacies to us as social justice advocates is the way he directed our attention past any given moment of crisis or hardship to a time when our communities would achieve justice and dignity for everyone,” House said. “He bequeathed us the spirit of hope and perseverance.”

House discussed her involvement with several Detroit-based organizations that work to organize and support Black communities, including the Black Legacy Coalition of the Charles H. Wright Museum and Riverwise Magazine. 

“These organizations are part of a network of hundreds of involved community organizing efforts in Detroit,” House said. “As social justice advocates, or those people who work for liberation of our communities, we want to counteract the despair that settles over communities when our rights are violated and our representative institutions are circumvented or usurped.” 

Echoing House, Yakini said the social justice work currently happening in Black communities is often tied to deeper problems in American society.

“I think the thing that we’re realizing now is that all of this work is intersectional because all of these problems are really caused by the same root problems: capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy,” Yakini said. 

Both speakers discussed the impact of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s on their lives and current work. Yakini said Civil Rights leaders such as Malcolm X played a role in his development as a Black man and social justice advocate.

“Our identification with Malcolm had a lot to do with our own developing idea of what it meant to be a Black man in American society,” Yakini said. “He talked about the food our ancestors ate, and so by listening to Malcolm, (I started) thinking about food within a political historical and cultural context, rather than just thinking about how it tasted.” 

To conclude the lecture, the speakers connected back to the symposium’s theme of returning to historical roots to impact future advocacy.

“As I’ve matured in the struggle, I’ve realized the significance of checking in on ourselves and our history,” House said. “Looking back to our predecessors (and) re-rooting ourselves in the lessons that we learned from people who have been on this journey of revolutionary struggle before us has been an emphasis in the lives of some social justice activists.” 

Yakini echoed House’s point, mentioning how the essence of the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century carries into this decade.

“I’ve developed a greater appreciation that, really, this is a lifetime’s struggle,” Yakini said. “It’s not something you get in for (a short amount of time) — you make a lifetime commitment.”

LSA freshman Yakirah Mitchel attended the keynote and said she noticed how the speakers highlighted parallels between King’s message and current political and social unrest.

“(Yakini) was talking about how a lot of these same struggles are just still there,” Mitchel said. “It is really prevalent today because through all the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer, we see so many parallels between what MLK was fighting against and what’s going on today. A lot of it is the same, which is really frustrating.”

Daily Staff Reporter Lara Janosz can be reached at 

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