Civil rights activist Van Jones to deliver MLK Celebration keynote speech

Civil rights activist and author Van Jones will deliver the keynote address at the University of Chicago’s 26th annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at 6 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 11, in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.


Jones, a CNN political correspondent and former Obama White House advisor on green jobs, also founded Dream Corps, an incubator, platform and home for world-changing initiatives that empower the most vulnerable in society. Among the initiatives is a program designed to alleviate poverty by investing in an inclusive green economy.

In addition to Dream Corps, Jones has founded and led numerous social enterprises, including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, promoting criminal justice reform; Color of Change, which works for racial fairness; and Rebuild the Dream, a think tank that champions innovative solutions to improve the U.S. economy.

A Yale-educated attorney, Jones is the author of two New York Times best-selling books: The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Solve Our Two Biggest Problems (2008) and Rebuild the Dream (2012). In 2009, Jones was named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World.”


The evening’s program also will feature a conversation with special guest Nikki Giovanni, poet and distinguished professor at Virginia Tech University; and Theaster Gates, director of Arts + Public Life and professor of visual arts.



"We are thrilled to welcome Van Jones and Nikki Giovanni, two remarkable people, to our campus to celebrate the history and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Karlene Burrell-McRae, associate dean of students and director of UChicago’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, which is spearheading the event. “Our excitement stems from their ability to speak out against injustices and use their platforms to both educate and work to improve the lives of others."

A world-renowned poet, activist and educator in the struggle for civil rights and equality, Giovanni has written more than two dozen books, including volumes of poetry, illustrated children’s books and three collections of essays. She is the recipient of 21 honorary doctorates and numerous other awards. Since coming to the University of Chicago in 2007, Gates has played a key role in envisioning and developing the Arts Incubator on Garfield Boulevard, a space for artist residencies, arts education, community based arts projects, exhibitions and performances, as part of UChicago’s Arts + Public Life initiative. In October, he debuted the Stony Island Arts Bank, a former South Side bank that has been transformed into a library and cultural center.

The University’s annual MLK Celebration also includes presenting three members of the UChicago community with Diversity Leadership Awards. This year’s recipients will be honored with a lunch and at the President’s Diversity Leadership Award reception on Jan. 11. They also will be recognized at the MLK Celebration in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

This year’s recipients are:

  • Charles Branham, Alumni Diversity Leadership Award winner
  • Nancy Schwartz, Faculty Diversity Leadership Award winner
  • Denise Jorgens, Staff Diversity Leadership Award winner

Jones’ speech at Rockefeller Chapel, 5850 S. Woodlawn Ave., is free and open to the public, with seating available on a first-come basis. Doors open at 5 p.m. at Rockefeller Chapel, and those who cannot attend may watch the celebration via live webcast at UChicagoLive. A community reception will immediately follow Jones’ speech in Ida Noyes Hall’s Cloister Club. The reception is free and open to the public.

The UChicago MLK celebration is part of a weeklong schedule of activities that will include small-group dialogues hosted by a variety of campus partners on the legacy of the civil rights movement and the current struggle for equality regarding the high rate of incarcerated African American males. (Find a list of dates and times on the MLK website’s Attend tab).

Additionally, members of the campus community are invited to share a quote or a story that has shaped or challenged their understanding of history and the responsibility to work for a more equitable society. The stories and quotes may be shared on interactive postcards that will be available through the Change Exchange tab on the MLK website.

The University Community Service Center has partnered with UChicago Lab Schools, UChicago Charter Schools and the nonprofit City Year Chicago to plan an MLK Weekend of Service for students, faculty and staff members. On Saturday, Jan. 16, volunteers will travel to more than 30 service sites on Chicago’s South and West sides, and on Monday, Jan. 18, hundreds of volunteers from across the city will work together to beautify Thomas Kelly High School and Brighton Park Elementary School with murals, paintings and light construction projects. The registration deadline is Friday, Jan. 8. Visit the UCSC website to register.

The MLK Celebration is 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.