Though classes will be canceled this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, campus will be far from inactive. The U-M Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium, which began Wednesday night with activist Alicia Garza’s lecture on #BlackLivesMatter, will be in full swing this weekend as panelists, musicians and lecturers take part in over 40 events that both commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and tackle issues centered around the theme #WhoWillBeNext.

“#WhoWillBeNext represents two questions that arise when injustice continues,” the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives’ theme statement reads. “Who will be next to suffer, and likewise, who will be next to lead and carry the waters of justice as King and others did during the civil rights era?”

The question of looking forward is especially relevant when applied to the nearing presidential election, organizers said as the symposium’s planning process began last February, OAMI Associate Director Lumas Helaire said election season and national conversations were important factors in deciding on a theme.

“As soon as we heard it, we knew it would probably be a great theme with everything going on socially and nationally with issues around police brutality,” Helaire said.

Multiple panels and discussions are centered around the upcoming election,which has seen candidates take controversial stances on issues of diversity, race and immigration. The Department of Afroamerican and African Studies is hosting a panel in conjunction with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on the impact of race and ethnicity on voters, featuring speakers like Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor, several professors and Rackham students including activist Austin McCoy and some undergraduate students.

DAAS Program Assistant Elizabeth James noted that because the symposium is before Michigan’s presidential primaries, students and attendees have the opportunity to build awareness before voting.

“With all the racial tension in the country, it’s still important that we have some sense of solidarity as we all have to live under whoever gets elected,” James said.  

The symposium, in its 30th year, also aims to be a space for campus to reflect on Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and the state of social justice at large through various lectures. The keynote Memorial lecture, taking place Monday in Hill Auditorium, is the traditional focal point of the weekend and has featured speakers from civil rights activist Cesar Chavez to last year’s lecturer Marc Lamont Hill, a prominent activist and journalist. This year, Naomi Tutu will take the stage to speak about her experiences as a race, gender justice and human rights activist. Tutu, the daughter of South African activist Bishop Desmond Tutu, has dedicated much of her work to cultivating inclusion and raising awareness about gender-based violence.

OAMI will live streamed the memorial lecture publicly for the first time this year. A number of watch parties are being hosted both by student groups on campus and by alumni as far away as Cincinnati and Washington, D.C. Helaire said it was important to the planning committee to open up access to members of the Michigan community both on and off campus.

“We have a large alumni body and we want to be able to reach them with the same message,” he said. “As much as we celebrate the social justice legacy with the keynote, much of what’s talked about here on campus is happening right now. Wherever you are, we want you to think about how to dialogue, network and act.”

The symposium’s website offers a downloadable watch party toolkit consisting of logistical tips and ideas for discussions after the lecture. Engineering senior Saumya Khurana, community service chair for Delta Theta Psi and organizer of a watch party tye sorority is hosting in the Union, said the livestream enables more students to watch the lecture in a familiar setting.

“I think it’s a great idea to watch the speech and have a space afterwards to talk about it,” she said. “I think it’s important to watch as a community because there’s a lot of issues going on currently that the symposium addresses.”

In addition to lectures and panels, the symposium’s program also features multiple performances and other creative homages to both Martin Luther King Jr. and the broader topic of social justice. Young Jean Lee, a Brooklyn-based experimental playwright, is putting on a handful of her plays in addition to a public interview as a part of the School of Art and Design’s Penny Stamps Speaker Series. The Michigan Theater is also screening “CHI-RAQ,” Spike Lee’s film about race in Chicago, and the Burton Memorial Tower bells will even chime famous works by African-American composers.

Gena Flynn, director of inclusion at the School of Music, Theater and Dance and coordinator of a showcase Sunday, held by SMTD and featuring famed saxophonist James McBride, emphasized the importance of including creative expression in the symposium.

“What’s new is that we’re bringing in an outside guest and performer really to add an opportunity to reflect on how music has been used in storytelling, and in particular, how (social justice) issues and history can be shown through music and through the arts,” she said.

The symposium’s program runs from its start this week through February, but Helaire said he is determined to make its impact last throughout the year.

“What I’m trying to move us towards is asking how can we make this not just something that happens in January, but using it as a springboard to address issues our community has,” he said. “That’s where the planning committee comes in, which is made up of various units around campus. There are people in these units doing work related to social justice issues, and we want to look at how this committee can support those issues more intentionally.”

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