Cheryl Brown Henderson—a daughter of Rev. Oliver L. Brown, the lead plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education—will deliver the keynote address at the University of Chicago’s annual commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy on Feb. 21 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.
The commemoration will also feature a conversation between Pastor Chris Harris—a Chicago-based religious leader and violence prevention advocate—and Deborah Gorman-Smith, dean of the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice. This year’s event will be held at 6 p.m., with a livestream available. RSVP online to receive a link to the stream, or to sign up for limited in-person tickets.
“We’re thrilled to welcome both Cheryl Brown Henderson and Pastor Chris Harris to this year’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Vice Provost Waldo E. Johnson Jr., an associate professor at the Crown School. “UChicago is dedicated to effecting change at all levels of society, and these two speakers will help illuminate the systemic challenges that we must continue to confront both nationally and locally.”
The 2022 event continues a rich tradition at the University of Chicago, which annually invites speakers who have followed in King’s footsteps as agents of change and proponents of peace and justice to address the University community.
Past speakers have included Barack Obama, award-winning author Isabel Wilkerson and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. King himself spoke at Rockefeller twice—in 1956 and 1959—delivering speeches that were facilitated in part by the late Timuel Black, AM’54, a Chicago civil rights activist and historian who passed away in October at age 102.
A prominent advocate for equality in education, Brown Henderson is the founding president of the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research. Her organization sponsors scholarships for minority students, conducts advocacy work at multiple levels—from elementary school classrooms to Congress—and plays a key role in interpreting both the enduring impact of Brown v. Board on education in the U.S. today and advocating for greater equality in education through publications, conferences, workshops and libraries.
Brown Henderson worked with Congress and the National Park Service to preserve historic sites in Kansas associated with the landmark Supreme Court ruling as a national historic site, which opened on May 17, 2004—the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision. The case famously marked the beginning of the end of segregation in U.S. schools, when the court unanimously declared “In the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP attorney who led the suit and represented Brown Henderson’s family, later was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967. Despite the plaintiffs’ victory in 1954—when Brown Henderson was four years old—formal desegregation in schools was a decades-long process in the United States. Even today, schools that serve Black students and other students of color continue to face systemic obstacles.
Chris Harris is the senior pastor of Bright Star Church and founder of Bright Star Community Outreach in Chicago, an organization dedicated to youth and family anti-violence programs that provides employment to more than 450 people annually. His approach leverages counseling, parenting, mentorship and workforce development and advocacy to help treat victims of trauma and reduce violence in the community. Harris’ community outreach and bridge-building work has led him to make connections around the city of Chicago, where partners include UChicago Medicine, Northwestern Medicine, the MacArthur Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control and United Way.
During the MLK commemoration, President Paul Alivisatos will also recognize the winners of the University’s Diversity Leadership Awards. Announced in January, the winners are Prof. Doriane C. Miller; alum Grace Chan McKibben, AB’90, AM’90; recently retired staff member Cynthia Cook Conley; graduate student Radhika Santhanagopalan; and College student Dinah Clottey.