Steve Pemberton – author, business leader and motivational speaker – spoke to over 200 members of the University of Michigan community Monday over Zoom for the University’s “This is America” Martin Luther King Jr. symposium. Pemberton centered the discussion on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his life story, his own personal life and the lighthouse effect. This effect references a lighthouse as someone who shows up in your life and has a significant impact. 

The symposium was organized by the MLK Committee, sponsors, the University library and the School of Information.

Dean of Libraries James Hilton thanked the committee for their efforts in creating this symposium and described the kind of speakers the committee chooses each year. The speakers are intended to honor MLK’s life and these speakers range from motivational speakers to book authors to environmentalists.

“Every year the committee does a phenomenal job of finding amazing speakers,” Hilton said. “Speakers who provoke us, speakers who push us to think about the roles that discrimination, bias and structural racism play in our society and in our own lives.”

Hilton also used this time to introduce Pemberton and explain why he was chosen to speak at the event. He acknowledged Pemberton’s business accomplishments, awards and philanthropy work. 

“Steve Pemberton, our speaker today, is a person of principle and action, grounded in his life experience,” Hilton said. “He’s someone who embodies many of the same values that MLK lived.”

Pemberton began his address by describing what MLK advocated for during his life and how these issues are still relevant today.

“I would argue current events remind us … of the things that Martin Luther King stood for,” Pemberton said. “He advocated for love and peace, dignity, tolerance, non-violence, brotherhood and sisterhood, fairness, justice, community, connection, (which) are in some ways all things that we are so desperately in need of now.”

Pemberton continued to discuss the impact of racial tensions on divisions within society and described how there is no opting out of this fight for justice. He also emphasized how important allyship is in creating a common community and story, and how this is the path forward.

“You have to work to find (the common story) and to connect along those lines and to assume that in any given conversation that more common story is there for us to find and to connect, doesn’t mean that we won’t have differences,” Pemberton said. “But what we’ll learn is that those differences are not the most important thing. One of the undercurrents of King’s philosophy was that he understood that there were differences, but he believed that those were not the most important things, a love of democracy, a love of community, a love of citizenry and a love of country.”

After the lecture, there was a Question & Answer session. When asked what inspired him, Pemberton said he is inspired by the younger version of himself. 

“I suspect I will never forget what was hanging in the balance for me. And what had been lost,” Pemberton said. “I think that’s with me in all honesty every day. And so it does impact the work that I do, and the way in which I do it.”

LSA freshman Nathan Clark said during the event that the overall message of the lecture and the impact it had on him personally.

“The main point regarding having that person that will be your lighthouse, I’ve definitely had a few people like that in my life,” Clark said. “He described a lighthouse in terms of somebody that can guide you through the struggles of life and everything. Your family, those people are supposed to be guiding you, but it’s often found that some of the most impactful people who kind of shaped your life could be friends or even a coach. So, I found that very interesting, because without those people definitely my life wouldn’t be the same.”

Daily News Reporter Marlee Sacksner can be reached at