Civil rights leaders to speak at Jan. 15 MLK commemoration

Event at Rockefeller Chapel to feature Rev. William Barber II and Sherrilyn Ifill

A pair of prominent civil rights advocates will be the keynote speakers at the University of Chicago’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration, as the UChicago community celebrates Dr. King’s life and legacy.

The Jan. 15 event at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel will feature the Rev. William J. Barber II, president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach; and Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. They will provide remarks then join Cathy Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science at UChicago, for a moderated conversation.

This year’s public event, which will begin at 6 p.m., continues a tradition that the University started in 1990. A number of prominent leaders have served as keynote speakers of the UChicago MLK commemoration, including Barack Obama, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and educator/activist Angela Davis. Dr. King himself spoke at Rockefeller Chapel twice as his profile as a civil rights leader rose rapidly—first in April 1956, just months after the Montgomery Bus Boycott; and again in October 1959.

“The University community is incredibly excited to host Rev. William Barber and Sherrilyn Ifill as the 2019 keynote speakers. Both not only embody the values espoused by Dr. King, but they have spent their professional lives serving as drum majors for justice in the fight for civil and equal rights,” said Regina Dixon-Reeves, assistant provost at the University of Chicago. “Their passion and commitment to inspiring young people to careers in service to others makes them a formidable pair for this year’s commemoration celebration.”

A 2018 MacArthur fellow, Barber is a social justice advocate who is working to confront racial and economic inequalities in America. He has worked to expand voting rights, health care, living wages, immigrant rights, public education and LGBTQ rights in North Carolina. That has included beginning a series of “Moral Monday” rallies outside of the statehouse to protest state laws that suppressed voter turnout, cut funding for public education and health care, and disenfranchised poor communities. Those efforts and associated nonviolent acts of civil disobedience grew to involve tens of thousands of participants across North Carolina and spread to other states.

Ifill is president and director-counsel of the LDF, the nation’s premier civil rights legal organization, and has emerged as one of the nation’s leading voices in the struggle for racial justice and equality. She litigated voting rights cases for the LDF before leaving to teach law at the University of Maryland. She is also the critically acclaimed author of the 2007 book, On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century.

The event, which is free and open to the public, will also feature music from the Chicago Children’s Choir. A community reception will follow in Ida Noyes Hall.

The MLK commemoration is one in a series of events during January in which the UChicago community will honor the life and legacy of Dr. King.

The University Community Service Center will partner with the Laboratory Schools and UChicago Charter School for the annual Day of Service on Jan. 19. UChicago students, staff, faculty, alumni and family members are invited to volunteer for on-campus service projects, including organizing and cleaning spaces, tutoring, crafting and painting. There also will be an off-campus activity to package meals in partnership with the nonprofit Rise Against Hunger and Kraft’s Micronutrient Campaign.

Civil rights leader Timuel Black, AM’54, will lead a bus tour around the South Side discussing his work with Dr. King. A lifelong resident of the South Side, the 100-year-old Black recently completed his memoir, Sacred Ground, which he will discuss at a 4 p.m. event Jan. 19 at the Seminary Co-op bookstore in Hyde Park. Although the tour is sold out, find more information about the book discussion here.