Martin Luther King III urges UChicago community: “Stand up for truth; stand up for justice”

At MLK commemoration, the civil rights advocate and global humanitarian recalls family’s legacy and lessons on activism

Martin Luther King III reflected upon his family’s steadfast dedication to activism, as he spoke to the University of Chicago community during its MLK Commemoration Celebration.

Mr. King said he was honored to deliver the keynote address on Jan. 30 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, from the same pulpit where his father first spoke in 1956. He emphasized the importance of persistence, even in the face of tragedy, reflecting upon the recent passing of his brother Dexter and the anniversary of the death of his mother, Coretta Scott King. 

“Both my mother and brother would want me to carry on and take every opportunity to share my father’s message of nonviolent social change, justice and peace to as many forums as possible as long as I can,” said Martin Luther King III, who recalled how his mother led a rally in Memphis in 1968, just days after her husband’s assassination.

Drawing upon his family’s unrelenting civic commitment in the face of racism, inequality and injustice, Mr. King encouraged the audience to take action.

“As we commemorate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., I call on young women and men everywhere to embrace a new definition of manhood and womanhood, a definition that emphasizes civic responsibility,” said Mr. King.

In his remarks, he examined some of the most pressing injustices of our time—from unequal health care access to gender discrimination to gun violence.

Recalling the killings of his father and grandmother, Martin Luther King III insisted on accountability and reform in confronting gun violence, even while many grow numb to frequent reports of mass shootings in the United States. 

“We must resist the indifference to gun violence in our society, and urgently need more accountability for the ongoing slaughter of innocent people by guns,” Mr. King said.

He also emphasized the role of voter registration and education in addressing society’s most pressing problems, drawing on his experience as a voting rights advocate. Mr. King led a series of marches across the country with his wife Arndrea Waters King and their daughter Yolanda Renee King, demanding federal action on voting rights legislation in 2021. In January 2022, they also marched in Washington, calling on Congress to protect the right to vote.

“The last decade has been very difficult for those who believe in democracy,” noted Martin Luther King III. “Not only have we experienced a concerted effort to deny people voting rights because of the color of their skin. Through the courts and state legislatures, we are also seeing a once great political party engaged in destroying democracy itself.”

Carrying forward the King family legacy

In his opening remarks, President Paul Alivisatos reflected on Dr. King’s legacy, ambition and impact as a civil rights leader. 

“An ardent advocate for equality and justice,” Alivisatos said, “he had an uncommon ability to persuade people through his words and example to reach across difference and division—and work together toward the benefit of all humankind.”

Reflecting on the honor of welcoming Martin Luther King III back to Rockefeller Chapel (where Dr. King spoke in 1956 and 1959), Alivisatos remarked on Mr. King’s “important lifelong contributions to the benefit of society as a civil and human rights activist.”  

The evening also included performances by Uniting Voices Chicago, formerly known as the Chicago Children’s Choir. In keeping with annual tradition, their repertoire included a stirring rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Martin Luther King III’s remarks were followed by a discussion with Assoc. Prof. Adam Green, a scholar of African American history. During their conversation, Mr. King discussed the Realizing the Dream initiative, which seeks to achieve 100 million hours of community service by his father’s 100th birthday on Jan. 15, 2029. The initiative also seeks to cultivate strategic partnerships and relationships with civil rights leaders and empower the next generation of activists.

Throughout the evening, Martin Luther King III emphasized his father’s ability to question and reform the norms and institutions of his time. He encouraged the audience to follow in his father’s steadfast advocacy for ideals that stood apart from his contemporaries.

“Sometimes we must take positions that are neither safe nor popular nor politic,” said Martin Luther King III. “But we must take those positions because our consciences tell us they’re right. So stand up for truth. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness. That’s what Dad said.”