Two renowned educators, artists and activists talked about their decades-long fight against injustice during the University of Michigan’s 2021 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium keynote lecture Jan. 18.

Gloria House and Malik Yakini praised King’s fearlessness and perseverance, and said his message continues to resonate today. 

“Dr. King courageously pointed out that the U.S. ruling class oppresses citizens at home and people all over the world with its policies and practices of capitalism, militarism and materialism,” House said. “But he envisioned a time when we will have liberated ourselves from these destructive systems. And in his projection of that vision of a new society that we are capable of building, he bequeathed us the spirit of hope and perseverance.

“I think this is one of the most important aspects of his legacy: the idea that we must be hopeful and that we must always persevere.”

The theme of the symposium was, “Where Do We Go From Here?” — a nod to a book King authored of the same title. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the annual symposium keynote, which usually takes place in Hill Auditorium, was livestreamed.

President Mark Schlissel noted this year’s event was occurring amid a global pandemic and at a time of great unrest and tragedy. He referenced the recent violence at the U.S. Capitol and deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people at the hands of police.

Watch the 2021 MLK Symposium keynote event.

“As a public university with a mission to serve society, we must use our intellectual power and commitment to advocacy as instruments to defeat an unjust system, advance anti-racism and dismantle systems of oppression,” Schlissel said. “We have much more to do before we can begin to realize Dr. King’s dream.”

House, who designed the major in African American and African studies at UM-Dearborn and served as the program’s director, said she became an activist nearly 60 years ago because the principle of justice resonated with her.

She has worked in various arenas, including voter registration, Freedom Schools, defending against police violence, and fighting for the inclusion of African and African American history in university curriculums.

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“I felt deeply the slogan we have evolved over the years: ‘No justice, no peace,’” she said. “(There’s) no peace inside me if I try to stay on the sidelines as an observer, and a realization that there can be no real peace in a society where there are wide scale injustices.”

Speaking about the roots of his activism, Yakini referenced influential teachers at his middle school in Detroit who played for students a recording of Malcolm X’s 1963 speech, “Message to the Grass Roots.”

Yakini said the part of the speech about how slaves who worked in their masters’ houses ate higher quality food than the slaves who worked in the fields set him on his current path.

He is the co-founder and executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, an organization that works to ensure people in the community have access to adequate amounts of nutritious food.

Moderator Stephen Ward, associate professor of Afroamerican and African studies and the Residential College in LSA, asked House and Yakini to reflect on how their views on Black liberation and other social justice movements have evolved over their lives.

Yakini said he has developed a greater appreciation of the struggle being long-term.

“Not only do we have to dedicate our lives to it — it’s not something you get in for six months, a year, two years or five years — you make a lifetime commitment,” he said. “It’s also an intergenerational struggle.

“To use a football analogy, we carry the ball down the field as far as we can, and then we hand it off to others who hopefully can build on what we have done prior and move closer to the goal.”

House said she has learned how important it is for activists to pay attention to their health and practice self-care. She said she has also realized over time the significance of “checking in on our history” and reviewing the lessons imparted by her ancestors.

In her remarks, Provost Susan M. Collins noted that U-M recently unveiled several anti-racism initiatives, including the creation of the George Floyd Memorial Scholarship.

“These are important steps, but it’s also critical for each of us to take individual actions” to help society overcome racism and injustice, she said.

Collins, Schlissel and Robert Sellers, vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, stressed that the university is committed to continuing its work to advance diversity, equity and inclusion.

The symposium also included messages urging people of color to consider being vaccinated for COVID-19.

“While there are historical reasons for our communities to be less trusting of the medical establishment, please avail yourself of all the information, in particular the facts that you need in order to help make an informed decision,” Sellers said. “Our communities are being disproportionately ravaged by the disease, and we need to do whatever we can to protect our loved ones and ourselves.”

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