“We are gathered here today to honor not only the father of the Civil Rights movement, but the father of American democracy as we know it,” said author Isabel Wilkerson at the University of Chicago’s commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose tireless activism led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
By fighting to expand voting rights to Black Americans, she said, King and other organizers sought to fulfill the promise of democracy—and undo the ways in which slavery has shaped America.
“Slavery is so foundational and lasted for so long, that it will not be until the year 2022, next year, that the United States will have been a free and independent nation for as long as slavery lasted on this soil,” said Wilkerson, the author of The Warmth of Other Suns and winner of the National Humanities Medal.
The first Black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, Wilkerson spoke Jan. 12 at UChicago’s 31st annual commemoration of the life and legacy of Dr. King. Traditionally held at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, where King spoke twice—first in 1956 and again in 1959—this year’s event was held virtually before an audience of over 2,000 people.
“Dr. King was a forceful advocate, not only for freedom and civil rights, but for the importance of building a society that incorporated diversity and inclusion at its core,” said UChicago President Robert J. Zimmer. “In other words, his vision was not only about the individual and the rights and freedom that each person should enjoy, but also of society as a whole and how it should function beyond the individual.”
Wilkerson’s latest book, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, connects the oppression of Black Americans to caste systems around the world. In her remarks, she referenced King’s visit to India in 1959, and how he came to recognize in India’s “untouchables” a struggle similar to what Black people faced in his own country.