Award-winning author, actor and philanthropist Hill Harper stressed the importance of voting in elections, emphasized the collective power of the people and rallied community members to more actively advocate for change during the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium keynote memorial lecture.
Speaking to a near-capacity Hill Auditorium audience Monday, Harper said King spent his short but well-used life being “wholly committed to leveraging the power of the people.”
“One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King is that we’re all tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable web, network of mutuality and whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly,” Harper said. “He was committed to making us understand that together, we have the power, but also together we have the responsibility.”
Harper said that although everyone attending the lecture was an activist, King would “ask us, how active?”
“Activism is critical because, through activism, we become agents of change,” he said. “I’d also wager that over the course of this past year, many of us — myself included — have missed an opportunity to be as active as we should, to stand against injustice, particularly when it may be an injustice that doesn’t affect us directly.”
Harper is known for his work supporting youth across the country through his writings and his Manifest Your Destiny Foundation, which provides underserved youth “a path to empowerment and educational excellence” through services like mentoring and academic enrichment programming.
Among his appearances as an actor, Harper starred on the CBS drama “CSI: NY,” and most recently on ABC’s “The Good Doctor.” He has written several books, and his acting and writing has earned him several NAACP Image Awards, as well as spots on The New York Times’ bestseller list.
With the symposium’s overarching theme,”The Fierce Urgency of Now,” the keynote celebration included spoken-word performances from singer and rap activist Aisha Fukushima, as well as multimedia presentations of King’s historical remarks.
In his opening remarks, President Mark Schlissel spoke of the milestones university members across campus helped U-M reach in the implementation of its strategic plan to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion, such as conducting an unprecedented campus climate assessment and creating the Intercultural Development Inventory to determine intercultural competence.
“(The MLK Symposium) reflects our desire to do good in the world and help build a better, more equitable, more just and more peaceful society,” Schlissel said. “It represents our embrace of the dual role of the university, which former President Harold Shapiro has aptly characterized as society’s servant and its critic.”
“As University of Michigan students, faculty and staff who aspire to lead in the larger world, we have a special obligation to uphold these most cherished values — our shared values of mutual respect, unity, equality and hope,” he said.
During his speech, Harper recounted several recent events that may have been “missed opportunities” to stand up and do more as activists, such as when white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, and President Donald Trump alleged misconduct on both sides, or when the federal government rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.
“But the good thing about today is everyone here in Hill Auditorium showed up,” Harper said. “You all are here. So since you’re here today, we can’t stop.”
Invoking King’s 1962 Hill appearance, Harper said he spoke a conciliatory message about “hope and healing and the work that needs to be done.”
“As we think about Dr. King and his legacy, think about the seat you’re sitting in and think about this person, this man, Dr. King speaking to you and asking you what are you willing to do?” Harper said. “What are you willing to sacrifice to make the world better? And I would suggest to you that you already know.”
Referring to the impact of district attorneys on policing, and of state officials on the Flint water crisis, Harper said elections — both local and national — matter and have consequences. He implored audience members to run for office.
What’s required to create actual change for big challenges, whether it’s voting rights or immigration policy, Harper said, is energy. He told attendees “we have been bereft in living with too little energy and taking what I would call the easy way out and allowing other people with antithetical agendas to out-energy us.”
The key is to turn potential energy into “kinetic energy,” Harper said.
“This room in and of itself can reverberate the level of energy necessary to change the course of this country, to get us back on the right track. We’re all we need because the power is the people.”