Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson to speak at Jan. 15 MLK celebration

Longtime civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. will deliver the keynote address at the University of Chicago’s 25th annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 15 in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

Jackson will speak to this year’s theme, “What does justice look like?” drawing on his personal history as an advocate for issues of civil rights, economic and social justice, and global peace.

Jackson worked with King during the 1960s, directing Operation Breadbasket, a program committed to the economic empowerment of African American communities.

“It is an honor to have the Rev. Jesse Jackson with us this year,” said Karlene Burrell-McRae, associate dean of students and director of UChicago’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, which is spearheading the event. “He is a recognized global leader who lives his commitment to the values upheld by Martin Luther King Jr.”

Jackson began his civil rights activism at 18, when he sought to desegregate his hometown library in Greenville, S.C., and became a leader of the sit-in movement. He founded Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) in 1971, followed by the National Rainbow Coalition, merging the two in 1996 to form the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a social change organization headquartered on Chicago’s South Side.

A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000, more than 40 honorary doctorate degrees and numerous other national and international awards, Jackson also has acted as a diplomat in international crisis situations in South Africa, Kosovo, Iraq, among others.

The MLK celebration is part of a weeklong schedule of activities, including the distribution of “promissory notes”—cards referencing King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech—that invite individuals and groups to make a written pledge describing how they will contribute to a just society.

Students and faculty are encouraged to leave their mark on a “dream wall,” an interactive mural that will go on display beginning Wednesday, Jan. 7, in the Reynolds Club. The mural will travel to various locations across campus that week. Participants are invited to press their thumbprints to the mural, eventually revealing a hidden image of King.

On Saturday, Jan. 17, the University Community Service Center will sponsor its annual MLK Day of Service, sending more than 250 students, and faculty and staff members into the community to volunteer in the areas of education, health, poverty relief and community development. Visit the UCSC website to register.

Jackson’s speech at Rockefeller Chapel, 5850 S. Woodlawn Ave., is free and open to the public. Seating is limited and available on a first-come basis. The speech also will be webcast at UChicago Live. To learn more, visit

A community reception will immediately follow Jackson’s speech in Ida Noyes Hall’s Cloister Club at 7:30 p.m. The reception is free and open to the public.  

Joining the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs in sponsoring the MLK Celebration are the Office of Campus and Student Life, the Institute of Politics, Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, UChicago Creative and the Vice President for Communications.